First identified in East Africa in monkeys in the late 1940s and in humans in the early 1950s, Zika virus has recently been making headlines around the globe. Zika virus is transmitted to people primarily through infected mosquitos and is known to circulate in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific. With outbreaks in Brazil and across South and Central America, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared Zika virus a global public health emergency. Though not as fatal or infectious as the recent epidemic of Ebola, there can be serious health implications of Zika virus. While Zika virus is not a significant public health risk in Canada, it is important to be aware of the virus and its global health implications. The Medical Station discusses our current understanding of Zika virus.
How is Zika Virus Transmitted?
Zika virus is predominately transmitted by mosquitos who bite an infected individual and then transmit the virus to the next individual they bite. The Aedus genus of mosquito is responsible for Zika’s transmission; it is the same type of mosquito that transmits dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever.
There have also recently been reported cases of the virus being sexually transmitted from males. Though this remains uncommon, the sexual transmission of Zika virus means that the virus could spread in countries that do not have Aedus mosquitos.
Another rare, but significant, mode of transmission of the virus has been through blood transfusions in Brazil. This has lead to the recommendation that anyone who may be infected avoid blood donation for four weeks. Lastly, it is apparent that the virus can also be transmitted from mother to fetus – this has serious health implications, which will be discussed below.
Zika Virus Symptoms
Only 20% of those infected with the virus will present symptoms. While it is beneficial that many people will not suffer from the symptoms of Zika virus, not knowing who is infected makes the spread of the virus harder to track. It is believed that the incubation period for the virus is a few days. Symptoms, typically quite mild, can last from 2-7 days and include:
- Mild fever
- Skin rashes
- Conjunctivitis (pink eye)
- Muscle & joint pains
There is currently no vaccine or specific medication for Zika virus. Treatment plans typically include rest, fluids, and treating symptoms such as pain and fever with common medications.
Dangers of Zika Virus
The main dangers of Zika virus are its transmission from a pregnant woman to the fetus and the development of Guillian-Barré Syndrome (GBS) in those infected by the virus.
Microcephaly is a serious birth defect that results from abnormal brain development and subsequent below average head size. The severity of microcephaly varies greatly, in some cases it results in death as children cannot perform vital functions, while in others it ranges from minor to more significant intellectual disability. Although the evidence is not yet conclusive, research is providing increasing strength to the theory that Zika virus is linked with microcephaly.
It is also speculated that there may be a link between current outbreaks of Zika virus and rising rates of Guillian-Barré Syndrome (GBS) in South American countries, including Brazil and El Salvador. GBS is a rare nervous system disorder that can cause temporary paralysis, long-term nerve damage, and fatality. Further research is currently being done to better understand the relationship between Zika and GBS.
Zika Virus in Canada
There are currently 20 confirmed cases of Zika in Canada, including a pregnant woman who tested positive for the virus. All cases were acquired while travelling abroad in South America. Despite the presence of Zika in Canada and Ontario, there is yet to be any local transmission of the virus and the risk remains low. The World Health Organization has said that Canada is one of the few countries in the Americas where the virus is unlikely to spread, due to the climate.
The Medical Station Weighs In
If you are currently pregnant or trying to get pregnant, The Medical Station recommends you speak with your health care professional before travelling to any affected countries. If you think you may be infected or displaying symptoms of Zika virus, visit your clinic doctor immediately.