Until recent weeks, Zika virus was not a well-known disease. It has now become an international concern, prompting travel warnings to areas where the virus is known to be prevalent such as Central and South America. So far, there have been no cases in the United States that are not associated with travel. Here are some facts about Zika virus and why it’s important:
What are the symptoms of Zika virus? For 80 percent of people who are infected with Zika virus, there are no symptoms. Only 20 percent will become noticeably ill. Symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain, headache, muscle pain, and conjunctivitis. These symptoms are usually mild and may last from a few days to a week.
If the illness is mild, why is it important? The most important thing about Zika virus is that it can cause problems in the babies of pregnant women. Babies of mothers with Zika virus are at risk for microcephaly, which is an abnormally small head accompanied by brain abnormalities. These babies may have permanent developmental problems. Some babies may also have eye problems.
How is Zika virus contracted? Zika virus is spread by mosquitoes. Mosquitoes survive by feeding on the blood of animals, including humans. When a mosquito bites a human who is infected with Zika virus, the mosquito becomes infected with Zika virus. Then any human bitten by that mosquito could become infected with Zika virus. The virus is spread through contact with infected blood, which is how it spreads from a mother to an unborn child.
How is Zika virus diagnosed? A blood test is available at the Centers for Disease Control. All blood samples to be tested must be submitted to the CDC by local health care providers. There is no instant test available at this time. Testing should be considered for patients at high risk of contracting the disease, especially those who are pregnant.
How is Zika virus treated? As with most viruses, there is no medication that will cure Zika virus. It will be cleared by the immune system of the infected person in about a week. Treating symptoms may make the patient more comfortable, so using fever reducers, pain relievers, and drinking extra fluids will help with symptoms. Babies born to mothers who had Zika virus during pregnancy will need special care to support development if microcephaly is a concern.
How can Zika virus be prevented? Currently, there is no vaccine for Zika virus. The best way to prevent it is to avoid travel in places where Zika virus is found, and this is most important for pregnant women. For people who cannot avoid travel to areas with Zika virus, working closely with a personal physician is important.
At present, Zika virus has not been diagnosed in anyone in the United States who has not traveled internationally. The virus has not been found in mosquitoes in the United States, but this could change. For current information on Zika virus, see the website for the Centers for Disease control at cdc.gov/zika..
Dr. Kristi Whitenton is a graduate of the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth, followed by general pediatrics residency at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. After two years of additional training in pediatric critical care, she became a medical director for Little Spurs Pediatric Urgent Care in San Antonio. In August 2014, she joined Urgent Care for Kids as the medical director for the Austin area. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and has a son attending Southern Methodist University in Dallas. In her spare time, she enjoys running, baking, and supporting the visual and performing arts.