When the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus, a disease spread to people through the bite of an infected Aedes-specie mosquito, a public health emergency on Feb. 1, we in the blithering cold of New Jersey knew we were mostly safe at home.
Unfortunately for me, I was gearing up for my trip to Mexico on Feb. 20 as well as my trip to Puerto Rico on March 24; both countries have about 120 reported cases of Zika to date.
As I simultaneously packed my luggage and learned everything I could about Zika, I found that the virus itself isn’t very harmful. Only about one in five people who contract Zika actually become ill and experience fever, rash, joint pain, headache and muscle pain for about a week. Most don’t get sick enough to visit a hospital or even realize that they’re infected.
However, the real risk with Zika is the threat it presents to a fetus when a mother is infected, as there have been seemingly correlated cases between the virus and microcephaly, a serious birth defect in the brain which causes a baby’s head to be much smaller than normal.
I’m not pregnant, and if I was, I probably would have canceled my trip to Mexico and would be doing the same for Puerto Rico. But some of the news reports I muddled through really scared me. If I did contract Zika, how long would it stay in my blood for? Could it cause a birth defect in a child I have five years down the line? Or was Zika really only a threat to men, since the virus exists in semen for much longer than it does in blood?
I couldn’t seem to find any clear answers. And it turns out, this is because they don’t exist yet.
“We still don’t understand the correlation between the Zika virus and microcephaly,” said Tadhgh Rainey, Hunterdon County Mosquito and Vector Control director. “This is currently being actively investigated. You hear a lot about how Zika causes this-and-that, but just because things are highly correlated, that doesn’t mean there is a cause and effect.”
Much of the current information available on Zika and microcephaly is anecdotal and more research is still needed.
“These assumptions may turn out to be true, but I don’t think that people should get overly excited, although they should take precautions,” Rainey said.
Health authorities in Brazil, which has been experiencing a significant outbreak of Zika since May 2015, have been investigating the association with assistance from the Pan American Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other agencies.
Microcephaly can also occur due to genetics, maternal infections and toxins encountered during pregnancy. Studies performed in Brazil strongly support the link between the Zika virus and microcephaly but don’t yet prove it.
The CDC recommends that pregnant women in any trimester should consider postponing travel to any area where Zika is spreading – which currently includes 36 countries, mostly throughout the Americas. To see the complete list of infected countries, visit cdc.gov/zika/geo/active-countries.html.
If you have to travel, the CDC recommends that you take precautions to prevent contracting Zika such as:
- Wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants
- Staying in places with air conditioning or that use window and door screens to keep mosquitoes outside
- Sleeping under a mosquito bed net if you are overseas or outside and are not able to protect yourself from mosquito bites
- Use Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellents
- Reapply insect repellent as directed, or at least every two hours since sweat will burn it off
- Using condoms or don’t have sex to prevent sexual transmission of Zika
Rainey recommends that travelers choose a DEET-based repellant, which are extremely effective because once a body part is sprayed, a mosquito can’t land there. A similar natural option would be a repellant that uses eucalyptus.
“We always underestimate the ability of repellants to work,” Rainey said. “However, we must be very mindful of mosquito bites. In Central and South America, this is the real deal.”
Zika virus can be transmitted during the first week of infection from an infected person to another through mosquito bites or spread by a man to his sex partners. The virus does remain in semen longer than it does in blood, but researchers have yet to determine for how long.
Another unknown is if Zika could affect us at home in New Jersey or in other parts of the United States.
The yellow fever mosquito, also known as Aedes agypti, the prime transmitter, can only survive in areas where it’s very warm. However, researchers aren’t sure yet if the virus can also be carried by Aedes albopictus, also known as the Asian tiger mosquito, which is very common in New Jersey.
Rainey said that if the Asian tiger mosquito turns out to be a decent transmitter of Zika, then local cases in New Jersey could occur, however, we won’t see the outbreak that Central and South America are seeing since the Aedes agypti mosquito is a much better transmitter, since it takes a bit of blood from a host and then moves quickly to another.
“Zika is a little bit more compatible with the Asian tiger mosquito than chikungunya is, so the potential for cases is more, but I’m not overly concerned,” said Rainey. “So does that mean 10 more cases or 100? It’s the million-dollar question.”