Zika virus: what it could mean for you
There’s been much recent talk of a new virus emerging in Brazil called Zika. Here we run through what it is, where it comes from and what it could mean if you’re planning to travel there.
Zika virus: what is it?
An arbovirus (or arthropod-borne virus), Zika is spread by Aedes mosquito bites. These insects also spread viruses such as yellow fever, chikungunya and dengue.
Where is Zika spreading?
After first emerging in Brazil in May last year, the Zika virus is now quickly spreading. This follows the recent rise of 2 viral illnesses with similar symptoms: dengue fever and chikungunya.
Zika has been detected in around 23 countries, mainly in the tropical regions of the Caribbean and South and Central America. Previous cases have been reported in the Pacific, Asia and Africa.
However, because methods of monitoring the disease vary from territory to territory, no-one is certain of its actual spread.
I’m travelling to a Zika region. What should I do?
Pregnant women should not travel to regions affected by Zika, and particularly Brazil. According to the Foreign Office, you should take precautionary measures if you’re visiting any of the following countries:
Foreign Office advise
“Follow the advice of the National Travel Health Network and Centre, particularly if you’re pregnant or planning to become pregnant, and seek advice from a health professional.”
At all times in these regions, anti-mosquito precautions should be taken, and be especially careful if you’re planning a trip to the Rio Olympics in August. Because Aedes mosquitoes are common in hot regions, it’s likely Zika will spread further.
Is there a cure, or a way of preventing Zika?
At present there is no Zika vaccine. However, the recent outbreak of Ebola is likely to lead to improved development of vaccines against potentially pandemic disease.
Although Aedes mosquito populations must be controlled, this can be very difficult. These insects bite both at night and in daytime, so take the following anti-bite precautions:
Is Zika contagious?
Mosquitoes are the only known carriers of the Zika virus. Although there is a possible risk of blood-borne infection, few individuals with the virus will infect others. Guidelines for blood donors and blood transfusion will be updated.
What happens if I contract Zika?
Symptoms mainly comprise fever for between 4 days and 1 week. This might be attended by muscle and joint pain, conjunctivitis, a rash and headache, starting between 2 and 7 days after first exposure.
Despite the recent increase in cases and the associated media coverage, instances of the Zika virus remain rare
In Brazil, unpleasant and worrying birth defects have been attributed to foetal exposure to the virus. The precise mechanism, and the role of likely extra risk factors, are yet unknown. However, so serious are the implications that a huge investigation into public health is now being conducted.
The principal defects are anencephaly (brain development failure, which is lethal at birth) and microcephaly (reduced brain development, usually leading to lasting impairment).
All stages of pregnancy are considered at risk
Those with Zika might also suffer from a neurological rarity, Guillain Barré syndrome (GBS). This is understood to be caused by reaction of the immune system, with nerve damage leading to muscle weakness, paralysis and other neurological problems.
Nick Harris, head of travel law with Simpson Millar, says it’s important not to panic. “Despite the recent increase in cases and the associated media coverage, instances of the Zika virus remain rare,” Nick said.
“If you’re travelling to regions where the virus has been identified, make doubly sure you adopt the stringent anti-mosquito measures which have always been recommended, and take extra note of the risks to pregnancy.”