Zika Virus

It’s summer!  Time to travel!  Do you have plans to travel anywhere?  If you are traveling to Mexico, the Caribbean or other parts of Central or South America you should be aware of Zika virus and take steps to protect yourself.

Zika virus is a virus that is spread through mosquito bites.  It infects humans and usually causes no symptoms at all.  When a person gets sick after infection they generally have a fever, body aches, a rash and red eyes (conjunctivitis).  The illness is not very severe and lasts a few days to a week.

The scary thing about Zika virus is that it can infect unborn babies and interfere with their brain development, causing a condition called microcephaly (“small head”) and other birth defects.

The best way to prevent Zika virus infection is to avoid getting it.  This includes avoiding travel to countries with ongoing Zika virus infections.  Unfortunately that includes pretty much all of the Western Hemisphere except for the US and Canada.  You can see a map with the most up-to-date information about affected countries here.

If you must travel to these countries (such as for required business or Olympic athletes competing in Rio this summer) take steps to prevent being bitten by mosquitoes.  This includes wearing long sleeves and pant legs, staying indoors when the mosquitoes are biting, and using an effective mosquito repellent.

What do you do if you get mosquito bites in one of these countries?  First, don’t panic!  There’s no need to rush to the doctor to be checked for Zika virus if you’re not sick AND you’re not pregnant.  If you DO get sick with a fever, body aches, rash and red eyes, definitely go see the doctor to get tested.  The health department is watching carefully for cases of Zika virus in the USA.

A woman who becomes infected with Zika virus must avoid getting pregnant until the virus is cleared from her bloodstream.  Current recommendations are to wait at least 8 weeks before trying to get pregnant.  Until that 8 weeks has passed, a woman should take all necessary steps to prevent pregnancy, including avoiding sex altogether and using birth control correctly and consistently if she chooses to be sexually active.  If you travel to a country with Zika virus, even if you’re not sick, it may be smart to wait the 8 weeks before trying to get pregnant.

What about women who are already pregnant?  First of all, do what you can to avoid being infected.  Don’t travel to countries with Zika virus, and avoid getting mosquito bites if you must go.  If you do travel to a country with Zika virus, whether or not you got mosquito bites and whether or not you get sick, see your doctor to talk about getting tested for Zika virus.

Men who get infected with Zika virus can pass the infection along to their sex partners (male and female).  There are no documented cases of female-to-male or female-to-female sexual transmission.  If a man travels to a country with Zika virus, even if he gets no mosquito bites and does not get sick, he can transmit Zika virus through semen to his partner(s).

This means that a man with a pregnant partner should wear a condom every time he has sex with his partner for her entire pregnancy.  Vaginal, anal and oral sex are all possible routes of transmission.  If he cannot wear a condom he must not have sex with her.  Period.  This is to protect the baby from the birth defects associated with Zika virus.

A man with a nonpregnant female partner should wait at least 6 months before trying to get pregnant after traveling to a country with Zika virus.  This is because it’s not certain how long a man with Zika virus infection will shed virus in his semen.  Couples should use effective birth control consistently and correctly for at least 6 months or avoid having sex altogether.

Babies and children can get Zika virus through mosquito bites.  Just like anyone else, parents should carefully consider whether their children should travel to countries with Zika virus and how to protect their children from mosquito bites and Zika virus infection.

If you or a loved one does get Zika virus, beyond seeing the doctor to confirm the infection, there’s not much else to do about it.  Zika virus disease is generally a mild flulike illness and doesn’t generally need treatment.  Symptom relief with fever reducing medicine, rest and plenty of fluids usually do the trick.  Symptoms last a few days to a week.

There’s a lot of buzz in the news lately about Zika virus and I’ve been fielding a lot of questions about it.  If you’re not pregnant and not intending to get pregnant, Zika is generally considered a nuisance rather than a big health threat.  However for women of childbearing age and their male partners it has the potential to have life-changing consequences for an unborn baby.

QUESTION:  Have you changed travel plans due to concerns about Zika virus?  Do you feel you have the information you need to protect yourself and your family?

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