Earlier this month, the World Health Organization declared a public state of emergency for the Zika virus. First identified in humans in 1952, Zika is a mosquito-borne virus that is transmitted by aedes mosquitos.
What makes Zika particularly frightening is the effects it can have on pregnant women. Scientists think there may be a link between the virus and microcephaly, a serious birth defect resulting in abnormally small heads in infants.
Furthermore, Brazil’s Ministry of Health has reported an increase in Guillain-Barré Syndrome cases since the Zika outbreak began. GBS is a rare, but potentially fatal, neurological condition in which the body’s immune system damages its nerve cells.
One of the biggest issues with the Zika virus is that only one in five people will experience symptoms. As a result, many people might not know they are infected with the virus.
With spring break approaching, students are highly encouraged to check travel advisories for their destinations. The CDC recommend that travelers to these areas try to protect themselves from mosquito bites and to use condoms, because the disease can spread via sexual contact.
To find out more about the disease, UA epidemiologist and assistant professor at the College of Public Health, Heidi Brown, answered questions put forth by the Daily Wildcat. Brown’s research focus is on the epidemiology and control of vector-borne diseases, as well as diseases that are spread between animals and humans.
The Daily Wildcat: What is the Zika virus and what are some signs and symptoms to watch out for?
Brown: Zika is a virus transmitted primarily by the bite of certain mosquitoes. The most common symptoms are fever, rash, joint pain or conjunctivitis.
DW: How does the disease spread?
Brown: This is a vector-borne disease. That means that it is transmitted through the bite of an infected mosquito. Mosquitoes become infected with Zika after they bite an infectious person – someone with the virus in their blood. There is some evidence for other modes of transmission; you may have heard of two cases of sexual transmission here in the US.
DW: Is there a vaccine available?
Brown: There is currently no vaccine for Zika virus, which means protecting yourself from mosquito bites is important. Long sleeves, insect repellent and making sure to keep mosquitoes out of your home.
DW: What exactly is microcephaly?
Brown: The word “microcephaly” can be broken down to micro, meaning small and cephalo cq, or head. Depending on the severity of the microcephaly, there may be associated developmental disorders. In Brazil, a few months after we started hearing about Zika virus transmission, Brazil began to report an increase in the number of babies born with microcephaly. Scientists are trying to discern whether Zika is causing this increase in microcephaly.
DW: Has the disease reached the United States?
Brown: A few years ago, and recently in Texas, there was sexual transmission of Zika, where the man had been infected and infected his female partner. This is a relatively rare occurrence and not the primary way Zika is transmitted.
DW: Are there any current threats to Arizona residents?
Brown: Here in Arizona, we have established populations of the mosquito that transmits the disease. However, it is important to remember that this is the same mosquito that transmits dengue and chikungunya and we haven’t seen outbreaks of either of these diseases.
DW: What precautions can students at the University of Arizona take to prevent possible infection?
Brown: Protecting yourself from infection is protecting yourself from bites by wearing long sleeves and using insect repellent. If possible, keeping mosquitoes out of your home through window screens or closing windows and turning on the [air conditioning].
Locations of confirmed Zika virus cases in the U.S.: As of Feb. 17, the CDC stated there have been 82 reported cases of travel-associated Zika virus, but no locally acquired vector-borne cases in the U.S.
For additional information and updates on the Zika virus, Brown recommends heading to the CDC website to learn more.
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