How serious is Zika virus?

Tropical country is famous for its warm and humid climate. Such an environment certainly is attractive for those who usually live in countries with 4 seasons especially during the winter seasons to come and visit tropical countries. Another thing known with tropical countries is the mosquitoes that possibly bring diseases. Dengue virus is certainly not a new occurrence in tropical countries but there is also another virus that is associated with mosquitoes but are less talked about, the Zika virus. In this DoctorOnCall’s article, we will be learning about Zika virus and how serious it could get.

Zika virus certainly shares some similarity with dengue virus. Similar to dengue virus, Zika virus is spread by mosquitoes, specifically Aedes mosquitoes. The white and black stripe of the Aedes mosquitoes spread Zika virus through bites. Initially, the Aedes mosquitoes are not infected with Zika virus. It is said that mosquitoes are infected when they bite a person with the Zika virus circulating in the human body. It is only when the infected mosquitoes bite another human, it is able to spread the virus.

There is one big difference with dengue and zika virus in terms of how the virus spreads. Aside from mosquito bites, the Zika virus is likely to be spread through sexual intercourse. In the case of dengue, it is very rare for dengue virus to be spread through sexual contact. Studies have shown that Zika virus can remain in semen longer than any other body fluids including vaginal fluid, urine and blood. This means that the Zika virus may also be passed by a person who has Zika before symptoms start, while they do have symptoms and even after the symptoms end.  Another difference in the way Zika virus spreads compared to dengue virus is the ability of the pregnant women infected by Zika virus to pass on Zika virus to her baby during pregnancy or around the time of birth.

Most people with Zika virus show no to few symptoms only when they are infected. Even if symptoms are exhibited, it is usually mild and lasts around 2 to 7 days. Common symptoms include high fever, pink eye (conjunctivitis), headache, pain behind the eyes, joint ache, muscle ache and red bumpy rash. In rare cases, Zika virus could lead to Guillain-Barre syndrome. This syndrome causes muscle weakness and pins-and-needles sensation or loss of sensation temporarily. This syndrome is also known as an autoimmune disease as the immune system damages the healthy nerve cells which lead to muscle weakness or paralysis. It is uncommon for Zika virus to be causing serious hospitalisation and deaths.

Zika virus in general is not a serious disease unless it affects pregnancy. Zika virus infection during pregnancy can cause serious birth defects such as microcephaly and many other complications such as limb contractures, high muscle tone, eye abnormalities and hearing loss which is referred to as congenital Zika syndrome. It could also cause foetal loss, stillbirth and preterm birth. Thus, Zika virus is serious in pregnancy as it affects the baby and the outcome can be seen with the complications it comes along with. It is estimated that 5 to 15% of infants born from an infected woman with Zika virus during pregnancy do show evidence of complications associated with Zika virus.

There is no specific treatment for Zika virus infection. Treatments available aim to support patients and make sure their symptoms are alleviated. Getting plenty of rest, drinking more fluid and painkillers or pain relief can help treat symptoms. Usage of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) should be avoided unless dengue virus infection has been eliminated because dengue virus can cause bleeding risk and the risk gets higher with usage of NSAIDs. In pregnant women living in areas prone to Zika infection or developing symptoms related to the Zika infection, they should notify their healthcare provider so that they can receive focused medical attention and evaluation of pregnancy risk associated with Zika infection.

The best way to prevent Zika infection is to eliminate the risk for infection. This includes taking preventative measures such as wearing clothing covering skin from exposure to mosquito bites, using insect repellent, sleeping under mosquito nets, eliminating unwanted containers around the home that can hold water, covering water storage containers and making sure the house is clean from trash potentially to be mosquitoes breeding sites. Ways on preventing Zika infection is the same as preventing dengue virus infection.

In essence, Zika virus is indeed a serious threat to pregnancy. The fact that it is able to be spread not only by mosquito bites and can be spread through sexual contact means people living in regions with active transmission of Zika virus need to be using contraceptive methods and understand the risk of possible adverse pregnancy or fetal. WHO recommends practising safer sex or abstinence for 3 months for those returning from areas active of Zika virus transmission to avoid infection spreading to their sex partner.  Zika infection and dengue infection shows great similarity in symptoms, treatment and prevention.

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William Thomas

William Thomas