Q. I’m worried about getting the Zika virus. How does it affect older adults?
A. From David O. Freedman, M.D., professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and a spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America:
There are no specific data on how the Zika virus affects older adults, such as whether age increases the risk of more severe effects or results in a longer duration of the disease. Despite increased scrutiny, no research has shown such effects as of now. We also don’t know how or if it affects people with a compromised immune system. Since the virus doesn’t appear to have multiple strains, you’re likely to stay immune from it after you first contract it.
About 80 percent of people who contract the virus are asymptomatic. For those with symptoms, I refer to Zika as “the flu with a rash.” The worst-case scenario for the non-childbearing age group is often symptoms that generally include fever, rash, headache, achiness in the joints and conjunctivitis.
Although it’s thought to be rarely associated with Zika, Guillain-Barre syndrome is a potential complication. Guillain-Barre syndrome is character-ized by temporary muscle paralysis and often results in difficulty breathing. The Zika virus, which is spread through the bite of an infected mosquito, is an epidemic in more than 30 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. There have also been recent reports of Zika being transmitted through sexual contact.
It is not spread through casual contact. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of mis- information about the Zika risk here in the United States. People have even been afraid to travel to Florida. However, unless something unprecedented happens, tropical diseases such as Zika will never be widespread. Two years ago, 3,000 cases of the Chikungunya virus, another mosquito-borne virus with symptoms simiar to Zika, were imported into this country and resulted in only 11 local cases of the disease in Florida. The worst-case scenario for Zika is a few local clusters of maybe five to 10 cases.
Like any of the tropical illnesses, including Chikungunya, Dengue fever and malaria, you can take precautions to help fight the spread of disease. This includes wearing an EPA-registered insect repellent that contains ingredients such as deet (20 percent to 30 percent), picaridin (20 percent) or oil of lemon eucalyptus or para-menthane diol (PMD) and reapplying every four to six hours, and staying in places that have air conditioning and screens on windows and doors.
If you’re feeling unwell after going to a tropical country, make sure to see your doctor. This isn’t necessarily to confirm a case of Zika; rather, it’s to ensure you don’t have a more severe disease such as those mentioned above. Testing for Zika right now is difficult, and resources are focused primarily on pregnant women.