Zika Virus: Protect Yourself

May 26, 2016

The Zika virus has been talked about on the news for months now following an outbreak in Brazil. The virus which is normally harmless in adults can lead to birth defects in babies.

It’s awful, but that is miles away. Should we worry?

“We should all be cautious, especially those who are pregnant or are trying to be” said Kim Bloom-Snyder, director, Infection Prevention & Control at Penn Highlands Brookville and Penn Highlands DuBois. She along with Jennifer Sunseri, director of Infection Prevention, Employee Health and the Wound Clinic at Penn Highlands Clearfield and Christine Garner, director of Quality, Case Management, Risk Management and IC at Penn Highlands Elk want people to be educated about the virus and how it can spread.

“The Zika virus causes a disease, which is spread to people primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito,” Garner said.

“The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting for several days to a week after being bitten by an infected mosquito,” she added. “People usually don’t get sick enough to go to the hospital, and they very rarely die of Zika. For this reason, many people might not realize they have been infected.”

However, the same Zika virus infection during pregnancy can cause a serious birth defect called microcephaly, as well as other severe fetal brain defects. Microcephaly is a defect that causes an unusually small head and a damaged brain.

That is what got it noticed in Brazil where more than 4,000 babies were born with this defect. In February, the World Health Organization declared Zika virus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.
As Zika is spread primarily by mosquitoes, Zika cases have been spreading and reported in many other countries and territories.

Should we be concerned about it here?

“To date, there has been no local transmission of Zika in the United States,” Garner said. The cases reported here are from people traveling to other countries. “Countries and territories reporting active mosquito transmission of the Zika virus are in the Caribbean, Central America, the Pacific Islands and South America.”
But as most Zika virus infections are transmitted through infected Aedes mosquito bites, it is important to note that one member of this family, Aedes albopictus, is common in Pennsylvania, particularly in southern Pennsylvania.

It can carry the virus if it bites an infected person who has traveled to Zika-prevalent locations..
To date, 17 cases of Zika virus infection have been reported among Pennsylvania residents who traveled outside of the U.S.

According to the state DOH, if you have been in an area with Zika, take enhanced measures to prevent mosquito bites for three weeks after you are home to prevent others from getting Zika from you.

If you haven’t been in an area, still take precautions to avoid mosquito bites. “Although there is a low risk of locally transmitted mosquito borne Zika infections in Pennsylvania, it is still a possibility, according to the PA Department of Health,” Bloom-Snyder said.

What can you do? “Take steps to prevent mosquito bites by wearing long sleeves, staying in places with air conditioning and window and door screens, use an EPA registered insect repellent and avoid areas with standing water,” Sunseri said.

You should also repair broken screening on windows, drain water accumulating around the home in garbage cans, gutters, buckets and pool covers. And make sure to maintain clean bird baths, and swimming pools should be appropriately chlorinated.

Sadly, the Zika virus can be transmitted from a mother to her child during pregnancy or near the time of delivery. (There are no reports of infants getting Zika virus through breastfeeding to date.)

That is why screening is very important for moms-to-be and for couples who want to start a family, Bloom-Snyder said.

At Penn Highlands Healthcare, all hospitals will be asking pregnant patients about their travel history in regard to Zika-infected locations. They may also ask patients about any possible exposures to others with the disease, such as a spouse traveling.

There are tests for the virus. A pregnant woman with no symptoms can be tested within 2-12 weeks of possible exposure. Non-pregnant patients should only be tested if they have a clinically compatible illness. The tests are sent to the state for results.

Women and men with Zika virus exposure but not developing symptoms should wait at least eight weeks after exposure before attempting pregnancy.

Men with Zika virus exposure who develop symptoms should wait at least six months after symptoms resolve before having unprotected sex. The Zika virus remains in semen longer than in blood and can be spread by an infected man to his partner.

Women with Zika virus exposure who develop symptoms should wait at least eight weeks after symptoms resolve before attempting pregnancy.

Persons with Zika virus exposure - even without symptoms - should also self-defer from donating blood for four weeks If a person has symptons, the person should’t give blood for six months.

The Zika virus is not new. It was first discovered in 1947 and is named after the Zika Forest in Uganda. Before 2007, at least 14 cases of Zika had been documented, although other cases were likely to have occurred and were not reported. Because the symptoms of Zika are similar to those of many other diseases, it is believed many cases may not have been recognized. Dengue and chikungunya virus infection causes similar symptoms to Zika virus infection and these viruses occur in many countries experiencing Zika virus transmission.

Why is this different? With the past few weeks, researchers in Brazil announced that the Zika virus strain today is different than those before it and that is why there are birth defects, according to an NBC news report.

Please be sure to follow Penn Highlands Healthcare for updates on Zika for local patients as we learn about them.