The CDC has expressed newfound concerns regarding the disease.
New research has indicated that Americans should be more worried about the Zika virus than previously thought. Although the virus was initially determined to be harmful only to expecting mothers who had recently traveled to select Caribbean and Latin American countries, more information has made clear that its severity is much worse than expected for both pregnant and non-pregnant people. According to the World Health Organization, the mosquito-borne disease can cause numerous health issues in unborn children.
“Everything we look at with this [Zika] virus seems to be a little scarier than we initially thought,” expressed Anne Schuchat, MD, principal deputy director for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to reporters during a White House briefing on April 11th, 2016.
One of the primary concerns of the Zika virus, and one of the first effects to be discovered is that it causes microcephaly, a congenital condition associated with incomplete brain development. Equally concerning is that the CDC estimates infection with the Zika virus is asymptomatic in an estimated 80% of cases,1 and it is no longer thought to be limited to the first trimester. Exposure to the virus is now a concern throughout a pregnancy’s entirety.
When the Zika virus does cause illness, symptoms are generally mild and self-limited, with the most common symptoms being fever, rash, joint pain or conjunctivitis. Along with causing the illness, microcephaly, experts now also believe the Zika virus causes premature births, eye problems and other neurological conditions.2 The virus has also been linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disease often preceded by a respiratory infection and causing weakness and paralysis of the limbs.
Further increasing disease-related concern, sexual transmission of the virus is now known to be more common than initially anticipated. Zika can be spread during intercourse by a man infected with Zika to his partners, remaining present in semen longer than in blood.3 On April 14th, 2016, the CDC also publicized the first known case of sexual transmission of the virus between men.
Despite these growing concerns, there is currently no treatment or vaccine available to treat this virus. Moreover, the current treatments are designed to treat symptoms only; however, diagnostic tests have been expedited by the FDA and are now readily available.
“Vaccines are being looked into, but the most recent update from the CDC has told us that we do not know where the development of the vaccine is at the present time,” explained Linda Girgis, MD, FAAFP, a family medicine doctor in South River, N.J. “Also, researchers are looking at genetically modifying mosquitoes so they no longer transmit the Zika virus. These are our two best hopes at the present time.”
As the summer months approach, another major concern of national health leaders is that the warmer weather will increase the prevalence of Aedes aegypti, the Zika-carrying mosquito. Summer weather may be warm enough to allow the mosquitos carrying the Zika virus to spread as far north as New York and across the western U.S. to Los Angeles, according to a study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.4
In order to increase protection from being bitten by one of these mosquitos, women who are pregnant should be sure to use adequate bug repellent and be on the lookout for areas with high mosquito activity. It is also beneficial to remove standing water around a home, dump bird baths, clear out gutters, and remove lawn clippings, leaves and debris. Other proactive measures that can be taken include checking for leaky hoses and air conditioner condensation that may moisten the ground, and considering consulting a professional about continuous misting systems, fogging and other effective ways to minimize the mosquito risk.
“Right now the CDC has expanded their warning on the dangers of the Zika Virus, and that should be taken seriously. Mosquitoes can carry many other diseases as well, and every precaution should be taken not to get bitten while outside or inside,” explained Dan Ritter, CEO of BugBand, a diethyltoluamide-free (DEET-free) insect repellent. “Regular use of insect repellants is considered fundamental in this battle.”
“Although this disease is “scarier than originally thought” (mostly due to confirmation of the severe complications that were before just considered possibly linked), planning, preparation, prevention and risk-mitigation can certainly reduce not only the disease presence, but [also] the fear associated with it,” explained Katherine Harmon, PA, director of health intelligence, iJET International. “Rapid responses by governments and private citizens to thwart diseases like Zika virus-namely dengue and chikungunya – have been very effective in the past.”
Additionally, Harmon stressed that educating anyone in a risk area or potential risk area about the disease and prevention can only serve to enhance prior successes. Education is truly imperative since, so far, there have been at least 346 cases of the virus in the continental United States, according to the CDC.
There are still many unknowns in regard to the Zika virus, but the bottom line remains that more research is critical to assist in learning about it and protecting those who could possibly come in contact with it. In an attempt to make this possible, President Obama has requested $1.8 billion in emergency funds to accelerate Zika-related education, prevention and vaccine research.
While Congress disputes over whether or not to allocate these funds, other sources of money may come from funds currently used to fight Ebola, malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases. Regardless of where the funds come from, without obtaining the necessary funding, the United States may not be able to work to contain the virus as it continues to circulate throughout the country.