In February this year, the World Health Organization declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern because of clusters of microcephaly and other neurological disorders in some areas, particularly Brazil, that have been affected by the Zika, a virus that spreads through the bite of the Aedes Aegypti mosquito.
This poses a serious concern for infected adults, especially pregnant women because the virus causes a serious birth defect in babies called microencephaly, which targets the child's brain. There have also been reports of other complications in fetuses and infants that have been infected with Zika before birth.
In the United States, the CDC has reported no cases of Zika infections through mosquito bites as yet but there have been cases of Zika infections related to travellers entering the country from Zika-affected areas.
Quick facts about Zika:
- It is contracted from a bite from the mosquito Aedes Aegypti which is also the carrier of diseases such as chikungunya. It is can also be transmitted through sexual contact.
- More than 1,400 cases of microcephaly have been confirmed in babies in Brazil whose mothers were exposed to Zika during pregnancy. This contrasts to six registered cases in the US so far.
- Cases of Zika reported in the US up to now have been among travellers who were infected outside of the US or contracted the virus through unprotected sex with an infected partner.
- According to Reuters, US health experts expect there will be cases of local transmission within the US soon as the weather warms up over the summer, particularly in the Gulf Coast states like Florida and Texas.
- The CDC has issued travel advisories on areas affected by the disease including Madeira, Cape Verde, Mexico, areas in the Carribbean, Central America, the Pacific Islands, and South America.
- Symptoms for children and adults include mild fever, conjunctivitis (red, sore eyes), headache, joint pain, and rash, but the disease is also linked to the Giullain-Barre syndrome that can cause temporary paralysis to infected patients, according to the BBC. The outcome in babies born with Zika is an abnormally sized head and potential for severe damage to the child's development.
- The risk to Europe is currently small to moderate, but WHO recently warned that it may spread there in the future. It is expected that if it did spread to Europe, there would remain only a moderate risk mostly in southern Europe and the Mediterranean coast.
- There is at present no treatment, vaccine or cure. It is only possible to treat the symptoms of the Zika carrier.
So what can you do to protect yourself and your children from infection?
- Refrain from travelling to areas that have raised the alert for the disease.
- If it is not possible to dress your children with long pants and long sleeves in the summer, use repellents with picadirin, which lasts longer and is less toxic than DEET.
- For toddlers, a mosquito net could come in handy to drape over their strollers to keep them from getting bitten by mosquitoes.
- If you suspect your child of having Zika, seek further medical advice from a doctor and give him plenty of fluids. Don't give him nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or aspirin.
The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention has opened a registry to monitor Zika births within the US. It has also announced that it will issue updates on the spread of the virus every Thursday to keep the public fully informed. Their full information page with advice about the virus and travel can be accessed here.
Dr Denise Jamieson, co-leader of the CDC's Zika pregnancy task force, said: "We're hoping this underscores the importance of pregnant women not traveling to areas of ongoing Zika virus transmission if possible, and if they do need to travel to ensure that they avoid mosquito bites and the risk of sexual transmission."