Separating fact from fiction about Zika in the U.S.

University experts give advice, clear up common misconceptions

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Zika virus is carried by Aedes mosquitos, but people who contract it can also transmit it sexually.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons | Cavalier Daily

The World Health Organization declared the Zika virus a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” February. By April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first Zika-related death in the U.S., and, by July, confirmed four cases of locally transmitted Zika in Miami, Fla.

Dr. Anjali Silva, staff physician at Elson Student Health Center, said current research also suggests that a neurological disorder called Guillain-Barre syndrome is strongly associated with Zika, though it affects only a small proportion of people infected with the virus.

Since the initial report of Zika presence in the U.S., there have been 35 cases of the virus acquired in Miami through mosquito transmission. With the spread of Zika to the U.S has come increased anxiety about being infected, especially with regards to the birth defects, such as microcephaly, associated with it.

However, organizations such as WHO, the CDC and local health departments have taken steps to more widely educate people on the virus and its prevention.

“A great deal of information has become available globally...” Silva said in an email statement. “Education efforts for the public as well as health care providers have become more widely available, especially online.”

Though also previously suspected, there has been increasing evidence that sexual transmission of Zika is more common than previously thought.

“It can be sexually transmitted from a symptomatic person before, during and after their symptoms end. It's also possible that it may be transmitted sexually by an asymptomatic infected person,” Silva said.

Testing for Zika has also been clarified and is more readily available as compared to six months ago.

In Virginia, the health departments at the local and state level have taken the threat of Zika seriously, with an action plan in place in case of active Zika transmission in the state, Dr. Denise Bonds, associate public health sciences professor, said.

“Some locations across Virginia are doing mosquito surveillance,” Bonds said. “They're putting traps out and are trapping mosquitoes and testing them... So far we haven't found any infected mosquitoes.”

Zika virus is a self-limiting illness transmitted in large part by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, and it can result in fever, rash and conjunctivitis, Dr. William Petri, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and International Health in the Medical School, said. Only about one in five people infected with Zika virus develops symptoms, and symptoms usually resolve without any specific treatment. While microcephaly — a birth defect resulting in an abnormally small head — was suspected to be linked to Zika, in the last few months more definitive evidence has linked the birth defect to the virus.

In terms of prevention, Bonds recommends wearing long pants and shirts during the day to prevent bites — since Aedes aegypti is a daytime mosquito — and mosquito repellant should be used on exposed areas. The Aedes mosquito breeds in standing water, which can collect around a property in anything from a birdbath to a flowerpot.

“People need to wander around their yard or the areas they live and make sure containers that have standing water are being emptied on a regular basis,” Bonds said. “Those measures will go a long way towards keeping the mosquito population down. In the next few months, the good news is that in Virginia the mosquito season will end.” 

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