From the Doctor’s Desk
Recently, there has been a great deal of “hoorah” about the Zika virus. As with any public health concern, it’s important to know the facts and be aware of the true risks.
The Zika virus is closely related to some other mosquito-transmitted diseases such as West Nile, Yellow Fever and Dengue. It was discovered in Uganda in 1947 but was never recognized as a problem until last year when, in Brazil, it was linked to a number of cases of Gillian Barre Syndrome (primarily an adult neurological condition) and birth defects in children.
The Zika infection is never noticed by 80% of infected people. The remainder experience a flu-like illness with fever, joint pains and a rash. However, a pregnant mother may transmit the virus to her developing baby, causing brain malformations that result in severe disabilities for the child. The virus is transmitted from person to person by 2 species of mosquito common in South and Central America and the Caribbean. As yet, no such mosquitos are present in the 50 US states outside of Florida, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama.
Zika can also be passed on to another person through sexual activity. The one documented New Hampshire case was a female who became ill after her partner had unknowingly contracted the disease in one of the areas noted above. As she was not pregnant, no harm was done.
The CDC (Communicable Disease Center) has recommended that anyone pregnant or considering pregnancy should not travel to a Zika area and should avoid getting pregnant for at least 8 weeks after returning. A male who has traveled to a Zika area and was not ill should be aware that he is potentially infectious to a sexual partner for 8 weeks after returning home. The recommended period of abstinence or strict condom use increases to 6 months if he became ill with any flu-like illness while traveling.
And what about the “bigger picture”? Compared to other mosquito-borne diseases, the Zika virus presents very little threat to New Hampshire residents. By contrast, Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) and West Nile Virus (WNV) are a far greater risks. Nationwide in 2014 WNV caused 2122 known infections and 85 deaths. EEE infected 8 people. Historically, 80% of EEE victims either die or suffer permanent brain damage.
As always, prevention is key. The CDC has issued a number of recommendations such as long sleeves and pants, permethrin treated clothing, insect repellants, avoiding exposure in wet areas at dusk & after dark and mosquito control measures in your neighborhood. For individual information/advice you may consult your primary care provider, the Dartmouth Hitchcock Travel Clinic or your town Health Officer (me).
Thanks for reading, Alex Medlicott