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Healthy You

Q&A: Zika Virus

Friday, August 05, 2016 10:19 AM

A mosquito-borne virus—the Zika virus—has recently been in the news as it has begun to spread to the Americas. As cases have begun to appear within the United States, including 46 confirmed cases in Illinois, it is more important than ever to stay informed. Becky Smith, MD, Chief Hospital Epidemiologist and attending physician in Infectious Disease at NorthShore, provides some answers to common questions about the Zika virus.

What is the Zika virus?

The Zika (ZEE’-ka) virus is transmitted by the Aedes species mosquito, the same species that spreads chikungunya and dengue viruses. The Zika virus began to spread more widely in the Western Hemisphere, including Central and South America and the Caribbean in May 2015.

What are the symptoms of Zika? How is it treated?

About 1 in 5 people infected will become ill and display symptoms – most of them mild – that last several days to a week. The most common symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Rash
  • Joint pain
  • Conjunctivitis (red eyes)
  • Muscle aches
  • Headache
  • Vomiting

Zika has no specific treatment other than rest, drinking fluids to prevent dehydration and taking medication to treat the fever and relieve pain.

How are you diagnosed?

Patients who match the appropriate travel history and have symptoms of the Zika virus will have blood taken for testing at their doctor’s office.

Can you contract Zika from contact with someone who does not exhibit symptoms?

Zika is mainly transmitted through mosquito bites. There has been a confirmed case of the virus being sexually transmitted from one infected individual to another. The virus is believed to clear from the blood in about a week. Individuals who are traveling or have traveled to the infected areas are encouraged to abstain from sex or use condoms to prevent further prevent transition. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention will issue more specific guidance over the coming weeks about how long a returning traveler is able to transmit the virus through intercourse.

Is there any way to prevent Zika virus?

There are no vaccines for Zika. While traveling in Central or South America, the best way for individuals to protect themselves is by preventing mosquito bites – as these mosquitoes aggressively bite people during the day. This can be done by wearing long-sleeved shirts, tall socks and long pants, using EPA-registered repellents, using permethrin-treated clothing and gear and by sleeping in a screened-in or air-conditioned room.

Why is there a focus on pregnant women and the Zika virus?

There have been reports in Brazil of microcephaly (babies born with abnormally small heads) and other poor pregnancy outcomes in babies of mothers who were infected with Zika virus while pregnant. Additional studies are needed to further characterize this relationship, however. Pregnant women should reconsider their travel to the areas where transmission of the Zika virus is ongoing. Women who are trying to become pregnant are advised to first consult with their doctor before traveling to these areas.

Doctors should ask pregnant women about their travels and symptoms of Zika. If their symptoms mirror those of Zika, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that doctors test for the virus. Pregnant women who have the appropriate travel history will also need to be monitored with ultrasounds upon return.

UPDATED 2/5/2016: 

How is NorthShore protecting its blood supply from the Zika virus?

NorthShore is committed to providing the safest and most reliable blood products for our patients. Our blood donation screening process exceeds current national safety recommendations. As part of our screening protocol, we ask potential donors a series of questions including: 

  • Have you travelled to a Zika virus endemic country in the last 28 days?
  • Did you have sexual contact with a partner who’s traveled to an affected area in the last 28 days?

If “yes” to either question, we instruct potential donors to delay giving blood until 29 days after their return or their partner’s return from the affected areas.

If you have any further questions or want to know more about the Zika virus, visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention website.

UPDATED 8/5/2016: 

The Centers for Disease Control have updated their guidelines for travel and for the testing of pregnant women in response to a rising number of Zika cases within the United States, including 46 new cases in Illinois, 8 of which were diagnosed in pregnant women. The new guidelines are as follows:

  • Pregnant women should avoid non-essential travel to areas where the Zika virus has been actively identified by the Department of Health
  • Pregnant women and their partners who are living in or traveling to areas with active Zika virus cases should follow CDC guidelines to prevent mosquito bites
  • Individuals who live or have traveled to areas where the Zika virus is active and who have pregnant partners should use protection or avoid sex during pregnancy to prevent infection during sexual contact 
  • All pregnant women within the United States should be assessed for exposure to the Zika virus during their prenatal visits. Women with an ongoing risk include those who live or frequently travel to areas with the active Zika virus. Women with a limited risk are those have traveled to areas where the Zika virus is active or who have had sex with partners who live in or travel to areas without using any form of protection to prevent infection
  • Pregnant women who have possibly been exposed, and who show symptoms of having contracted Zika should be tested
  • Pregnant women with the ongoing risk of contracting the Zika virus, but have not shown symptoms should be tested during their first and second trimesters of pregnancy
  • Pregnant women with a limited risk who have not shown symptoms should talk to their healthcare providers about testing for Zika
  • Women who have been diagnosed with Zika should wait at least 8 weeks, and men should wait at least 6 months, after the appearance of symptoms to attempt conception 
  • People who have an ongoing risk of contracting the Zika virus should consult their healthcare providers if they are considering pregnancy in order to discuss planning options, risks and preventative measures
  • People with a limited risk of contracting Zika and who do not report symptoms should wait at least 8 weeks after last potential exposure before attempting to conceive

To get the most up-to-date information on the Zika virus, travel, prevention and testing, visit the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention