Fending off the Zika virus

Thanks to the incessant coverage of the U.S. presidential nominating process, the Zika virus alarm bells being sounded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been temporarily overshadowed. But we are getting closer to the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this August. In addition to the superb athletics, people will be buzzing about Zika, which has been far more widespread in South America than in North America. Cases have been reported here in Connecticut now, and people have to be cautious and concerned.

The Zika virus is spread to people primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes aegypti mosquito. While this mosquito species is not currently present in Connecticut, a closely related species, Ae. albopictus, the Asian tiger mosquito, and related species are and may become carriers of the disease in Connecticut.

The Ae. aegypti, also common known as the Yellow fever mosquito, is found throughout tropical regions of the world and are the same mosquitoes that spread dengue and chikungunya viruses. Mosquitoes become infected with the Zika virus when they bite a person already infected with the virus. Infected mosquitoes can then spread the virus to other people through bites.

Symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). According to the CDC, illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting several days to a week — deaths are rare. There is no vaccine to prevent or medicine to treat Zika virus infection; however there is medication to treat some of the symptoms.

People are cautioned to contact their health care provider if they develop symptoms after returning from areas where Zika virus has been identified.  Of enormous concern, Zika virus can spread from a pregnant woman to her fetus, which can cause serious birth defects. Because of this, pregnant women should not travel to areas where Zika is present. Zika virus can also be spread from men to women by sexual contact.

Zika virus was first discovered in 1947 and is named after the Zika forest in Uganda. In 1952, the first human cases of Zika were detected and since then, outbreaks of Zika have been reported in tropical Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. Zika outbreaks have probably occurred in many locations. In May 2015, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) issued an alert regarding the first confirmed Zika virus infection in Brazil, and on Feb 1, 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Zika virus a public health emergency of international concern. Transmission has been reported in many other countries and territories, especially in Latin America. Brazil has confirmed 2,844 cases of Zika in pregnant women.

Avoid infection by preventing mosquito bites. Use insect repellent according to label instructions, wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants and hats, empty any items around your property that can hold water, and use air conditioning or window/door screens. It is important to practice these protective measures when traveling to areas where Zika virus is found, and these are useful steps to help reduce mosquito and insect bites in general.

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