Another mosquito-transmitted disease was all over the news this week.
The CDC has issued a travel alert cautioning people about traveling to 14 countries and territories in Latin America and the Caribbean where Zika virus transmission is ongoing. The affected countries include Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
Like Dengue, Zika is a virus that causes illness and is transmitted by the bite of infected mosquitoes. The urgency of the travel advisory is because Zika virus infections in pregnant women have recently been linked to serious birth defects.
Per the CDC:
- Pregnant women in any trimester should consider postponing travel to the areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing. Pregnant women who must travel to one of these areas should talk to their doctor or other healthcare provider first and strictly follow steps to avoid mosquito bites during the trip.
- Women trying to become pregnant should consult with their healthcare provider before traveling to these areas and strictly follow steps to prevent mosquito bites during the trip.
Outbreaks of Zika virus disease have previously been reported in tropical Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. May 2015 saw the first locally transmitted cases reported in Brazil. Since then, the virus has rapidly spread throughout the Caribbean and Latin America
Zika virus infections are believed to be linked to a dramatic increase in pregnancies in Brazil that have ended in miscarriage or a (usually) fatal birth defect called microcephaly. Literally meaning “small head”, microcephaly is a condition where a baby is born with a severely underdeveloped brain. Zika virus in Brazil is likely to become an even more prominent public health issue as the country prepares to host the Summer Olympics in August, 2016.
A baby born this week in Hawaii with microcephaly and Zika virus infection could be the first case reported in the United States linking the birth defect with the virus. Two pregnant women in Illinois have also tested positive for Zika virus. The mothers in each of these cases had traveled to Brazil or other Zika endemic countries. The risk of a local outbreak in the continental US remains low because the disease is transmitted by infected mosquitoes and not from person to person. Scientists continue to monitor tropical regions of the US, including the Southeast and Florida which provide a favorable habitat for the mosquito that carries the Zika virus.
There is no medication to treat Zika virus infection and no vaccine available to prevent it. Practicing insect bite precautions remains the best form of prevention.
Always visit your travel health specialist if you are pregnant (or planning to get pregnant) and traveling outside the country. Pregnancy increases the risk of many other medical conditions and infectious diseases.