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Zika Virus Could Pose Threat to U.S.

February 03, 2016

This article was written in conjunction with Antonio Crespo, MD, infectious disease specialist, and Jamin Brahmbhatt, MD.

Globalization has made our world a lot smaller. What happens in one country can easily affect others thousands of miles away, especially when it concerns the spread of disease. We saw this in 2014 with the Ebola crisis, but now there’s another pandemic spreading throughout several countries that has made its way to the U.S.: the Zika virus. With Governor Scott’s recent proclamation of a State of Emergency for four Florida counties due to the Zika Virus, the disease is causing alarm close to home. Here’s what you need to know.

The Zika virus is an infection spread by Aedes mosquitoes, which are native to the Western Hemisphere. Most people who have the virus don’t realize it, but health experts are sounding alarm bells because of the serious threat the Zika virus poses to pregnant women and their unborn children.

Background on Zika Virus

The Zika virus was first discovered in the 1940s, but health officials are now concerned about the virus because it is now spreading at a rapid rate in Central and South America, including Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Haiti and Puerto Rico. The virus’ emergence in these areas means that it’s only a matter of time before we see transmission of the virus in the U.S. So far we’ve had confirmed cases in Washington, D.C. and 11 states. As of late January, there were three confirmed cases in Florida — one in Hillsborough County from a person who traveled to Venezuela and two cases in Miami-Dade County from people who traveled to Colombia. However, a wider outbreak is unlikely in the U.S. due to our sanitary conditions and good mosquito control measures, as we’ve seen with Dengue fever and Chikungunya fever in the recent years.

Still, the CDC is trying to curb the spread of the virus. It has issued interim guidelines and now requires state health departments to report newly confirmed cases. It is also recommending that healthy individuals avoid engaging in sexual activity with anyone who has traveled to areas where Zika has been identified, as the CDC has confirmed that the virus has been transmitted through sexual contact.

“We’ve added Zika to the list of notifiable conditions, so state health departments have to report to CDC so that we can track and respond to the spread of the illness,” the agency said last week.

The Zika virus spreads when a mosquito bites an infected person. Mosquitoes then spread the virus when they bite another victim. It’s important to understand that Zika doesn’t pose a serious health risk to most people. Only 1 in 5 patients will have symptoms, including headache, fever, rash, joint pain and pink eyes. These symptoms are usually minor and resolve themselves in one to two weeks, according to Dr. Jamin Brahmbhatt, physician and surgeon with the The PUR Clinic at South Lake Hospital.

Potential Threat to Pregnant Women

There’s now more concern about the Zika virus because it leads to serious birth defects, including microcephaly, which causes babies to be born with small heads and with brains that aren’t fully developed. Brazil currently is experiencing the worst of this. Health officials first detected the virus in Brazil in May. An unusual increase in the number of cases of microcephaly and fetal loss have been identified in Brazil since the beginning of the epidemic.

There is no treatment for microcephaly. Children with the condition are at risk for several cognitive and health issues, including developmental disabilities like small stature and facial disfigurement, challenges with balance and coordination, speech issues and seizures.

The CDC is also investigating if Guillain-Barre, a rare paralysis syndrome, is linked to the Zika virus.

How to Stay Safe

There are several preventative measures you can take to stay safe. Florida residents, in particular, need to be cautious because our state is a major tourist destination.

“Somebody traveling to Orlando could be infected and since the mosquito is present in this area, it is possible that the virus could be transmitted to one of our residents and local spread could happen,” said Dr. Antonio Crespo, an infectious disease specialist at Orlando Health. “That is why it is very important to be aware of the symptoms of Zika virus, to notify health authorities, proceed with testing and if confirmed and have the proper mosquito control practices to avoid transmission."

So what else can you do to stay safe? First and foremost, follow the CDC’s recommendation if you are pregnant and avoid travel to Zika-affected countries, including the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Dominican Republic, which recently were added to the list of countries with the virus.