It’s odd to think about mosquitoes in the middle of winter. However, in Brazil, it’s not the middle of winter. The Zika virus, a potentially devastating illness, has captured medical headlines around the world. Carried by mosquitoes, the Zika virus has been documented in Central and South America, the Caribbean and several southern states. Apart from causing miserable flu- like symptoms, this unusual and worrisome virus can cause catastrophic birth defects. In fact, as of January 31, 2016, the Brazilian government has traced over 3,000 birth defects to Zika virus exposure in utero.
Patients with Zika infection may experience high fevers, severe musculo-skeletal pain and profound malaise. Symptoms are often similar to those caused by another warm weather mosquito-borne culprit, Chikungunya virus. The word, “Chikungunya,” is a tribal word describing the acute, contorted, bent-over posture of people doubled-over with pain, as the illness strikes. An intense, maculo-papular rash on the trunk and extremities is often present early on. Encephalitis, myocarditis, and hepatitis can develop. The most recent outbreak of Chikungunya virus flared up in October, 2013 on the island of St. Martin.
Researchers believe the current outbreak of Zika virus can be traced to large crowds and warm weather at the most recent World Cup events. The illness has now been confirmed in 24 countries. Nearly 40 cases are being evaluated in the United States, however, all of these cases are apparently related to exposure while traveling.
Zika virus in the expectant mother can result in severe birth defects, neurologic deficits, and even anencephaly in newborns. The Brazilian government has taken the unprecedented measure of warning women not to get pregnant until the situation is controlled. This is an extreme policy designed to prevent extreme tragedy. The best advice for everyone combines current science and common sense:
- Women who are pregnant or may become pregnant should avoid travel to endemic areas of infection.
- Be careful around upcoming Mardi Gras and Carnivale celebrations.
- If travel is essential to these areas, avoid camping, “jungle expeditions,” dense tropical vegetation, standing water, or other obvious exposures to mosquitoes.
- Minimize outdoor exposures at dawn and dusk.
- Keep arms and legs covered and use insect repellants properly.
- If symptoms develop, seek medical attention promptly and give a precise travel history.
For now, staying informed and exercising common sense and good judgment is everyone’s best bet.