Zika: Is the Bite as Bad as the Buzz?

Preventing a disease even the experts aren’t experts on gets a little sticky. Sticky, like the feeling of three layers of sweaty bug spray when you peel off the thinnest long sleeve shirt you own after a 95 degree summer night out.

Long sleeves, bug repellent, and a night in is the cocktail the Center for Disease Control suggests to combat the Zika Virus. For as much media coverage this disease has demanded, the CDC’s recommended course of action seems a bit passive for the average citizen. But Infectious Disease Physician, Dr. Fares Masannat, who works for the private group Infectious Disease Specialists, says the Zika frenzy is a disease we’ve seen before.

“It’s actually an old virus. The first cases of Zika were reported about 60 years ago in Africa,” Dr. Masannat says. “And every once in awhile some of these viruses start coming back and start causing infections on a large scale”.

According to Dr. Masannat, the Zika Virus is an especially interesting case because it’s a reemerging infection which gives experts like himself a long list of unknowns and a lot of questions left to answer.

“Until we have more cases, until you study short term and long term outcomes of the virus, it would be hard answer a lot of these questions accurately,” Masannat says.

What the CDC and experts like Dr. Masannat’s team do know is that the virus can be spread in two ways. First, and the result of an overwhelming majority of the cases in the United States, is a direct infection from a mosquito bite of a mosquito carrying the Zika Virus. The second is a sexual transmission of the virus from someone who has been infected with the disease. Once contracted, the symptoms, if displayed, can consist of a mild fever, a possible rash or joint pain, conjunctivitis (reddening or inflammation of the eyes), and in some cases, a headache or muscle pain.

“The symptoms of the infection tend to be really relatively mild overall. A lot of the people probably wouldn’t even suspect anything severe if they had that,” Cheri Kovalenko, Associate Professor of Nursing at the University of Sioux Falls, explains.

The bout of media attention given to the Zika Virus prompts healthcare educators such as Kovalenko to stay attuned to the continuous conversation concerning this disease and how it can impact communities like the Nursing Program at USF. USF Senior Nursing Student Samantha Whitley is keeping up with the course of Zika right along with Kovalenko. “It is a virus, so right now there is no cure for it,” Whitley says.

“We don’t have any sort of vaccination or particular antiviral medication that can cure Zika,” she says. “For the average person, symptoms are generally pretty mild. A fever, a rash. You know, you might just kind of feel like junk for a week”.

Dr. Masannat agrees with Kovalenko and Whitley in that some people may not have any symptoms at all when they get the virus. According to Masannat, as far as experts know, right about 80% of those who get infected with the virus do not show any kind of symptoms.

“Now how about the other 20% percent? They usually have mild symptoms.”

Though doctors in the United States haven’t before seen Zika like they do now, Dr. Masannat says that the West Nile disease has similar tendencies of showing a lack of symptoms and being relatively mild, and South Dakota alone has seen 127 cases this year of West Nile spread by mosquitoes.

“But as time goes by the answers can vary,” Masannat cautions about the current information regarding Zika cases.

Posted numbers according to the CDC show that out of the total 3,358 cases of the Zika Virus in the United States, just 43 were acquired from local mosquito bites, and 28 sexually transmitted. This leaves the other 3,314 cases in the country to individuals who contracted the virus while traveling in a country or region where the mosquito population carries the disease. The state of South Dakota has seen just one confirmed case of Zika in the state as a result of travel.

“Overall it seems it’s a mild virus. However, there are a few areas where this virus can be concerning,” says Masannat.

In more extreme cases, Zika does have the potential to cause Guillain-Barré syndrome. Though the CDC has only recorded eight of these cases within the United States, this syndrome is a neurological problem leading to paralysis.

“In most cases, it [paralysis] is completely reversible,” Masannat reassures.

Even with this connection, Dr. Masannat and other experts still say that most people who will get Zika will not have any major complications.

Additional statistics have lead experts like Dr. Masannat to vague conclusions of how Zika can influence pregnant women and their unborn child, and it might be these complications that contribute to some of the scare of this virus.

“When it becomes dangerous is if you’re pregnant,” Whitley says.

When a pregnant woman gets infected with Zika, “they themselves do not get extremely ill” Masannat explains, “but the main risk is to their fetus.”

The Center for Disease Control has recorded 20 infants born with birth defects and five pregnancies lost with the fetus having birth defects. Masannat says one of the main risks for children being born from a mother who had Zika right before or during her pregnancy is microcephaly, a condition where the size of the baby’s head is significantly smaller than other children, leading to cognitive dysfunction resulting in mental disabilities and learning difficulties.

One of the questions Masannat says is being studied right now is “even the children of pregnant women who got Zika who did not develop that specific complication, the microcephaly, are they going to have a normal life?”.

According to the current research, this is some indication that these children might still have some cognitive dysfunction, but Dr. Masannat explains, “It might take years to answer that question.”

As disease experts keep working to gain knowledge about the Zika Virus, its symptoms, complications and the spread of the disease, researchers are discovering and sharing new information all the time.

“We get frequent updates on Zika, sometimes daily,” Dr. Masannat says.

For right now, experts, educators, and hospital staff have similar conclusions. Use preventative measures of bug spray, long sleeves and caution when traveling. Consult your doctor about being tested for the Zika Virus if you are or plan to become pregnant before or after travel and be conscious of sexual contact if you or your partner could be infected.

A Mexican vacation might not the best idea right now is what Kovalenko reminds, but with correct precautions and consulting your physician, Zika - as far as the average citizen is concerned - might mean just a week or so of “feeling like junk.”

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