By Alfred DeLuca, M.D.
We’ve all heard about the Zika virus outbreak in faraway places like South America, the Caribbean, Africa, Southeast Asia, Pacific Islands (Hawaii, Samoa) and Central America–but how does it affect us here in New Jersey?
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have confirmed nearly 400 travel-related Zika cases in the U.S., but so far, there have not been any cases contracted on U.S. soil. However, now that the weather is warmer, it is possible we may begin to see some cases, particularly in the hotter and more mosquito-prone Gulf Coast states.
The good news is Zika isn’t going to kill you or probably even result in hospitalization. But the risk to pregnant women, or women who may become pregnant by someone infected, is extremely serious. If a male passes the virus to a partner resulting in a pregnancy, the baby could face devastating birth defects.
The risk to the fetus is the same if a pregnant woman (perhaps unknowingly) travels to a Zika-affected country and is bitten by an infected mosquito. In several affected countries, particularly Brazil, the virus has been connected to a number of babies born with significant birth defects of the skull and brain, serious eye problems and Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune paralysis.
Physical virus symptoms are rare
Diagnosing Zika infection is tricky because most infected people won’t even know they have the disease, which also increases the risk it could be unknowingly passed on through sexual activity, resulting in pregnancy. Only about one in five infected people experiences any physical symptoms. The virus is transmitted by the bite of the tropical Aedes aegypti mosquito, which prefers humid and balmy climates such as Texas, Florida and Louisiana here in the U.S. If symptoms do appear, they often include fever, joint pain, rash and red eyes.
Travel to Zika-affected countries
I strongly advise pregnant women to avoid travel to any region of the world affected by this virus. Keep in mind, the threat to an unborn baby extends throughout the course of the pregnancy—not just the first trimester–as originally believed. People visiting these countries need to be vigilant about using insect repellent–indoors and outdoors—to skin and clothing throughout your stay.
In addition, sexually active people should practice birth control while visiting, and for three months (I am adding a month for added precaution) after they return to the U.S., since studies have shown that the virus can continue to live in semen two months after infection.
Testing and treatment
If you have traveled to a Zika-affected country and are concerned you may have the virus, start by seeing your family doctor. The next step is to have a blood or tissue sample taken for evaluation, which is currently being administered by the CDC.
Zika virus treatment follows the same standard protocol issued for most flu-like viruses: rest, plenty of fluids and over-the-counter pain medications for fever and joint discomfort. There is no medication (due to its viral make-up) or vaccine yet and to create one will be years in the making. For up-to-the-minute updates on the status of the virus, visit the CDC website at cdc.gov/zika which also includes content specifically for pregnant women.
If you need a primary care doctor
If you believe you may have been exposed to the Zika virus, are experiencing related symptoms or have questions, contact your family physician. To find an internal medicine doctor or OB-GYN near you, visit CentraState’s Physician Finder at centrastate.com/physicians or call 866-CENTRA7 to access a list of board-certified primary care doctors and other specialists.
Alfred DeLuca, MD is board-certified in internal medicine and infectious diseases and on staff at CentraState Medical Center. He can be reached at his private practice, Central Jersey Infectious Disease P.C., by calling 732-792-0741.