This summer, many Rice students will travel to Central and South America for medical brigades, civil service trips, or personal reasons. People who were lucky enough to have these experiences describe developing strong friendships, exploring new cultures, and experiencing moments of self-discovery. But this summer there is an added complication to potential travel plans: the Zika virus. What is it? How does it affect us? And, perhaps most importantly, can it be avoided?
According to the World Health Organization, the first confirmed appearance of the Zika virus actually occurred in Brazil in May 2015.2 However, the most recent Zika virus outbreak in Brazil was linked to reports of microcephaly (a birth defect where babies are born with smaller heads and thus smaller brains1) and Guillain-Barré syndrome (a disorder in which the immune system attacks the nerves2). Zika has caused significant turmoil in Brazil, threatening to interrupt the 2016 Rio Olympics and stirring up debate regarding abortion policy.3
The Zika virus has now spread to multiple countries, including the United States. As of February 3, 2016, there have been 35 reported cases of Zika virus in the United States, 8 of them in Texas; all except one were associated with travel (the other being sexually transmitted).4
The Zika virus is transmitted by infected Aedes mosquitoes.4 These mosquitoes, which also spread the dengue and chikungunya viruses, bite aggressively during the daytime. Zika virus could also be transmitted from a mother to her baby during pregnancy. This may lead to birth defects, such as microcephaly (as was the case in Brazil). Moreover, on February 2, 2016, the CDC confirmed that the disease could be transmitted through blood transfusion or sexual contact.3
About 1 in 5 people who get infected with the Zika virus become ill.4 Don’t be afraid--people usually don’t get sick enough to go to the hospital, and very few die from the virus. The most common symptoms of Zika include fever, rash, joint pain, muscle pain, bloodshot eyes, and/or headaches. Symptoms are usually mild, lasting from several days to a week. During this time, those infected with Zika should get plenty of rest and water.
Currently, there is no Zika virus vaccine, although research to create a tool for prevention is underway. While the vaccine is being developed, people should take precautions to avoid being infected or further infecting others. Those who will travel to the Americas have been urged to reconsider their travel plans and postpone their trips.
Zika virus remains in a person’s blood for about 1 week after infection, but this time period may be longer for others.4 If you have been infected with the Zika virus, you should avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes for the first few weeks to prevent spreading the virus to others. Those who don’t have Zika could wear long sleeves and pants and mosquito repellant to block mosquito bites. In addition, if you recently traveled, you should tell your healthcare provider when and where you visited. Your healthcare provider may order special blood tests to look for Zika or other viruses.4
Little is known about the Zika virus, but scientists around the world are rapidly conducting studies to better characterize this disease. Hopefully by the time summer rolls around, the Zika virus will be the same as every other virus we have encountered so far--curable.
Jenny Ren is a sophomore from Jones College at Rice University.
Facts about Microcephaly. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/birthdefects/microcephaly.html (accessed 2/7/16), part of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Guillain-Barré Syndrome Fact Sheet. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/gbs/detail_gbs.htm (accessed 2/7/16), part of National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Zika virus: 6 things to know now. http://www.daytondailynews.com/news/news/health-med-fit-science/zika-6-things-know-now/nqJRS/ (accessed 2/5/16), part of Dayton Daily News.
Zika Virus. http://www.cdc.gov/zika/index.html (accessed 2/5/16), part of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.