The Zika Virus. While many of us still may not be sure what exactly it is, talk of the virus seems to be everywhere, which can raise our level of concern.
Dr, Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization has even been quoted as saying the virus has gone from, “a mild threat to one of alarming proportions,” and that it’s spreading “explosively.”
So, how much do we need to worry?
CNN hosted a Facebook Q&A chat with American neurosurgeon and medical reporter, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, to help explain how much risk is involved with this virus.
Dr. Gupta first noted that this mosquito-borne virus has been around for decades, concentrated in the Zika forests of Uganda. The disease was discovered close to 70 years ago, but wasn’t associated with outbreaks until 2007. It’s only within the past few years, Gupta said, that the virus began to spread to other countries.
What are some countries doing to protect against Zika?
Gupta noted that Zika is transferred by the Aedes aegypti mosquito - a daytime mosquito, instead of a nighttime species (such as the ones that spread malaria.) Protection in the affected countries remains very basic–staying indoors as much as possible, protective clothing, insect repellent.
Part of the reason the virus is spreading so quickly is that it’s new to alot of locations. When we get sick from any type of virus, our body’s immune system can learn to fight it, keeping us from getting sicker or spreading disease. In the case of the Zika virus, however, people in most countries have never come in contact with it before. Without previous exposure and immune defense, they are more susceptible to being affected and spreading the virus.
Why is Brazil getting so much attention?
While Brazil is a big country, and one that’s also preparing for the upcoming Summer Olympics, Dr. Gupta responded that the level of concern is particularly high there because people tend to live in “very close quarters,” mosquitoes are present due to weather patterns, and there’s not much protection.
The virus is unlikely is be as much of a threat in more developed countries where there’s more air conditioning, screened windows and greater access to insect repellent.
The media coverage is also at a high level there due to the significant increase in the microcephaly condition in infants - where cells in the brain and skull don’t develop properly and are too small. In the previous years in Brazil, “there were maybe 140 cases” of the disease in an entire year. But more recently, there have been 4,200 cases in a few months, and 51 children have died from the condition.
Is there a vaccine?
The bad news, no. At least not yet. Scientists are working on one, with early trials possible later in the year, but it could take years for one to be manufactured and distributed. The good news? Dr. Gupta says once your body has contracted the virus, it works to protect you from being as severely affected next time, building antibodies to fight off the virus. Also, about 80 percent of all affected with Zika virus show little to no symptoms.
Microcephaly and Guillain Barre (an inflammatory condition of the central nervous system also seen with the Zika virus), are more serious complications that have been seen in association with Zika, but no direct links have been proven.
How long does Zika stay in the bloodstream and does it stay dormant?
The Zika virus appears to only stay in the body for several days, and so far blood tests show no evidence that it lays dormant. Dr. Gupta noted that the Zika virus acts similarly to the west Nile, yellow fever and chikungunya viruses, in how they are spread.
What about all the advice to women?
Some of the advice that comes out in the beginning of a virus outbreak is “reactionary,” suggested Gupta. There have been similar types of responses with H1N1, and the Ebola virus.
El Salvador officials have advised women not to become pregnant for two years, but Dr. Gupta noted that, “there’s no magic in the two-year number.” Dr. Gupta also said that he had the chance to speak with an official at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the agency’s position is not to warn women to avoid pregnancy, but instead advise them how to protect themselves from the virus.
So what about pregnant women looking to take a vacation?
Dr. Gupta was very clear on this: “If you had to make the decision right now, literally online and about to buy the ticket, you probably shouldn’t do it.” With what is known right now, if you are pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant and looking to visit the affected countries, it’s probably not best unless you absolutely HAVE to be there. Gupta added that experts are still learning about the disease, and the impact on an unborn baby, and with what we know right now, “stay home.”
For more information: Will the Zika virus spread to the U.S.? - Berkeley Wellness: Zika Virus Q&A with Public Health Expert John Schwartzberg
Kristina Brooks is a gluten-free digital editor at HealthCentral, with a background in animal biology, ecology, and health science. While studying broadcast journalism, she discovered the great need for health reporters that could translate research to the public. In her work, she hopes to use research to help consumers make smart decisions about their healthcare, and empower patients to stay confident and in charge of their chronic conditions. Kristina works on the HealthySelf newsletter, as well as HealthCentral’s MythWeek.