The Australian government is advising women who are pregnant to consider postponing travel to any area where Zika virus transmission is ongoing.
Move over Bieber, there’s a new fever in town and it’s all the rage with government health officials right now. Zika fever, or Zika virus, is a mosquito-born disease that’s making a rapid sweep of the world’s tropical zones, including Brazil, Mexico and closer to home, Samoa. Zika is not life threatening and only affects 1 in 5 bitten humans. Yet if you’re pregnant or planning, Zika is a major health risk amid fears the virus is linked to microcephaly, a condition that’s resulted in unusually small heads and brain damage in thousands of newborns in Brazil.
There are concerns that pregnant women who become infected with Zika can transmit the disease to their unborn babies, with potentially serious consequences. There is no vaccine or specific treatment for Zika.
In light of this, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has this week advised pregnant women to reconsider travel to any area where outbreaks of the mosquito-transmitted Zika virus has occurred. This includes 22 countries affected by the virus.
As reported by ABC News, Australian virologists say the mosquito-borne Zika virus has already been discovered in Australia in travellers returning from South America. The likelihood of Zika taking root in Australia is slim, although we do have a carrier candidate in our Aedes aegypti mozzie up in Far North Queensland. However for the virus to infect our local mosquitoes, one of these striped nightmares would need to bite a very newly infected traveller, which is an unlikely story.
However, further afield, the chances of a Zika virus spread are high, with the World Health Organisation warning the virus is now likely to spread to all countries in South, Central and North America except Canada and Chile.
“If the epidemic was still going on in August, when Brazil is due to host the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, then pregnant women should either stay away or be obsessive about covering up against mosquito bites,” WHO director-general Margaret Chan has said.
WHAT IS ZIKA VIRUS?
Zika virus is a mosquito-borne flavivirus transmitted primarily by mosquitoes. The mozzie in question, Aedes aegypti is a mosquito that can spread dengue fever, chikungunya and yellow fever viruses, and other diseases. It can be recognised by white markings on its legs and a marking in the form of a lyre on the upper surface of the thorax. The mosquito originated in Africa but is now found in tropical and subtropical regions throughout the world. Aedes aegypti mosquitoes bite in the day, particularly around dawn and dusk.
During the first week of infection, Zika fever can be found in the blood and passed from an infected person to another mosquito through mosquito bites. An infected mosquito can then spread the virus to other people. To help prevent this spread, infected persons are advised to vigilantly avoid mosquito bites during the first week of transmission.
ZIKA VIRUS SYMPTOMS
The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention notes that in adults, symptom are rare and usually not severe as only about 1 in 5 people infected with Zika virus become ill. Symptons are worse in babies and young children. The incubation period for Zika virus disease is not yet known, but is likely to be a few days to a week. The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting for several days to a week:
- The most common symptoms of Zika are low-grade fever (between 37.8°C and 38.5°C)
- Joint pain, swollen joints, muscle or bone pain and headache.
- Conjunctivitis (red eyes)
- Deaths are rare
If you’ve travelled in a Zika fever area and suspect you’ve been bitten, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention advises you talk to a doctor or nurse if you develop a fever with a rash, joint pain, or red eyes.
To manage symptoms, take medicine, such as acetaminophen or paracetamol, to relieve fever and pain. Do not take aspirin, products containing aspirin, or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen. Get lots of rest and drink plenty of liquids.
Australia’s Smartraveller bulletin notes that the symptoms of Zika are similar to those of dengue and chikungunya. If you’ve travelled through an infected part of the world, see a doctor if you develop the symptoms described above. Your doctor may order blood tests to screen for Zika or similar viruses like dengue.
IF YOU’RE PREGNANT
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention advises that pregnant women can be infected with Zika virus in any trimester.
Pregnant women with a history of travel to an area with Zika virus transmission and who report two or more symptoms consistent with Zika virus disease (acute onset of fever, maculopapular rash, arthralgia, or conjunctivitis) during or within 2 weeks of travel, or who have ultrasound findings of fetal microcephaly or intracranial calcifications, should be tested for Zika virus infection in consultation with their state or local health department.
Because there is neither a vaccine nor medications available to prevent Zika virus infection, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all pregnant women consider postponing travel to areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing
WHERE ARE THE AFFECTED AREAS?
In November 2015, Samoa reported the first local transmission of Zika.
Mexico and Central America
In November 2015, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama reported incidents of Zika infection within their borders.
- El Salvador
Puerto Rico and the Caribbean
In December 2015, a locally transmitted case of Zika was detected in Puerto Rico, marking the caribbean island’s first case of Zika virus. Since then, ongoing infections have been recorded in Puerto Rico as well as:
- Puerto Rico
- Saint Martin
In May 2015, the first local transmission of Zika was reported in South America. Since then the virus has spread across the region to South American countries including Colombia and Brazil, where the state of Pernambuco is one of the worst-hit areas.
- French Guiana
In October 2015, the north west African island nation of Cape Verde reported the first local transmission of Zika virus infection.
HOW TO PREVENT ZIKA?
Unfortunately there is no vaccine to prevent or medicine to treat Zika. So the onus is on travellers to fend off mosquito bites in the first instance. Smartraveller.gov.au advises:
- Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants
- Use insect repellents containing DEET or picaridin. Always use as directed. Insect repellents containing DEET and picaridin are safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women and children older than 2 months when used according to the product label
- Use permethrin-treated clothing and gear (such as boots, pants, socks, and tents)
- Use bed nets as necessary
- Stay and sleep in screened-in or air-conditioned rooms.
- These precautions are necessary in the daytime as well as night time.
Other time honoured tips are:
- Use air conditioning or window/door screens to keep mosquitoes outside. If you are not able to protect yourself from mosquitoes inside your home or hotel, sleep under a mosquito bed net.
- Help reduce the number of mosquitoes inside and outside your home or hotel room by emptying standing water from containers such as flowerpots or buckets.
- If you use both sunscreen and insect repellent, apply the sunscreen first and then the repellent.
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