What do we really know about the Zika virus?

As the number of babies born with serious birth defects rises in South America, and with cases of the virus now being reported in Florida, is Zika a ticking time bomb? Health on Top investigates

SYMPTOMS of the Zika virus include fever, headaches, rash, joint pain and red eyes (conjunctivitis). The effects are usually mild, so many people might not realise they’ve been infected. The rare nervous system disorder Guillain-Barre syndrome, which we covered in our Amy Parr story (Health on Top, Issue 1), has also been linked to the infection. Zika virus infection during pregnancy can cause a serious birth defect called microcephaly, as well as brain damage. Recently, a woman in Barcelona became the first case in Europe of a baby born with Zika-related microcephaly. The mother is reported to have caught the virus while in Latin America. The 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 have been reported in tropical Africa, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands and South and Central America.
There is no treatment available, so patients are advised to rest and drink plenty of fluids. While there’s currently no Zika vaccine, safety trials using human volunteers are underway in the US. Drug companies have shown success in pre-clinical trials, in which they have induced immunity in mice and monkeys, meaning it’s likely that the vaccine could prevent infection in humans. However, researchers say an effective vaccine will not be approved for public use for at least a year. The biggest concern is the impact the virus could have on babies developing in the womb and the surge in microcephaly, a condition caused by the brain not developing properly, resulting in an abnormally small head. The severity varies, but microcephaly can be deadly if the brain is so underdeveloped that it cannot regulate the functions vital to life. Children who do survive face intellectual disability and developmental delays. The virus can also trigger miscarriage.
Travel warning
The latest Government advice is that pregnant women should postpone non-essential travel to areas with active Zika transmission until after pregnancy. These areas include Florida, Latin America and the Caribbean. Thomas Cook, Thompson and First Choice and Virgin Holidays are granting free holiday cancellations or amendments for pregnant tourists with trips booked to affected areas up until 31 December. In addition, women are being told to avoid getting pregnant while travelling in an area with active Zika virus transmission, and for 28 days following return home. Some areas in Brazil have declared a state of emergency, with doctors describing the outbreak of Zika as ‘a pandemic in progress’. A number of athletes pulled out of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, while others have instructed their families to stay at home rather than risk contracting a virus which could affect future family plans. So, if you’re going to travel to affected areas, make sure you take the correct precautions to protect yourself and others.


Steps to prevent mosquito bites

When in areas affected by Zika and other diseases spread by mosquitoes, take the following steps:
• Wear long-sleeved tops and long trousers.
• Stay in places that have air-conditioning and window and door screens, to keep mosquitoes outside.
• Sleep under a mosquito net.
• Use insect repellents that contain either Deet, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, or para-menthane-3,8-diol.

The Health Protection Agency (HPA) says that products containing up to 50 per cent Deet are safe to use in pregnancy and when breastfeeding, as long as you stick to the manufacturers’ guidelines.
– Always follow the product label instructions.
– Reapply insect repellent as directed.
– Do not spray repellent on the skin under clothing.
– If you are also using sunscreen, apply sunscreen before applying insect repellent.


To protect your child from mosquito bites:
– Don’t use insect repellent on babies under two months old.
– Don’t use products containing oil of lemon eucalyptus or para-menthane-3,8-diol on children under the age of three.
– Dress your child in clothing that covers their arms and legs.
– Cover crib, stroller, and baby carrier with mosquito netting.
– Never use insect repellent on a child’s hands, eyes, mouth, or cut or irritated skin. Instead, adults should spray the repellent on to their hands first, then apply to a child’s face.
– Treat your clothing with permethrin or purchase permethrintreated items.
– Treated clothing remains protective after multiple washings. See product information to learn how long the protection will last.
– If treating items yourself, follow the product instructions carefully.
– Do NOT use permethrin products directly on the skin. They are intended to treat clothing only.