Everyone is talking about the Zika virus right now. Not since rubella have we seen an infectious disease with the ability to cause widespread fetal malformations. The situation has all the makings of a public health emergency, and we need to understand more about this virus. But let’s keep in mind the following five facts as we understand them right now:
- We do not know for sure that the Zika virus causes microcephaly in fetuses—other co-agents or other factors may be involved. According to the WHO, it will take between 6 and 9 months before we will know with more certainty. The same holds true for the potential relationship between Zika and Guillain–Barré syndrome, a neurological disorder that can cause paralysis.
- According to Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at University Health Network in Toronto, the primary mode of transmission is mosquitoes—by far. Dr. Bogoch further states that there have now been three documented cases of sexual transmission, two from prior outbreaks and one from the current outbreak. “This [mode of transmission] cannot be ignored,” he says, “but is unlikely to be the driving force of the epidemic.”Consequently, we shouldn’t be too worried about contracting it in Canada because the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which transmits Zika, is not found in Canada (this species is unable to survive our climate).
- The actual illness caused by Zika is extremely mild and can seem like just a mild virus: muscle and joint aches, fever, rash, and red eyes. In 80% of cases, there are no symptoms at all. So we need to be mindful of this fact and not be falsely reassured if we visit a high-risk area.
- The best piece of advice at this point is for pregnant women to avoid all travel to high-risk areas. The CDC has also released guidelines as of February 5, 2016, that recommend men who have travelled to high-risk areas abstain from sexual activity (vaginal, oral, or anal) with their pregnant partners or use condoms for the duration of the pregnancy. The CDC is being so careful because at this point we do not know how long the virus can live in semen, even after it leaves the bloodstream.
- You cannot rely on blood testing for Zika. According to the CDC, there is currently no perfect test to detect the virus. The blood test can cross-react with other viruses such as dengue and West Nile virus. For this reason, caution should be exercised. And if you have travelled to a high-risk area and are pregnant, make sure you discuss your situation with a high-risk specialist in obstetrics and gynecology. If you are male and have travelled to a high-risk area, then assume you have the virus and take the appropriate precautions—especially if your female partner is pregnant or wants to become pregnant.
Note about author: Dr. Michael Szabo is a Medical Director at Ingle International.
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