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How Worried Should I Be About the Zika Virus?

It’s hard not to get alarmed about the Zika virus. Writing in TheJournal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), scientists warned that the mosquito-borne virus has “explosive pandemic potential” — meaning that it could spread worldwide — and the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified the situation as an international emergency.

Clearly, the United States is not immune from the current outbreak. As of June 22, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 820 cases in the United States, and 1,860 cases in the territories American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Speaking at an April 11 White House briefing, CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, MD, said that “everything we look at with this virus seems to be a bit scarier than we initially thought.”

Zika is scary as much for what we don’t know about the virus as it is for what we do know. Here are some key things that we do know:

  • The Zika virus is spreading rapidly in several parts of the world. Fueling the outbreak is the fact that the virus is reaching places that were never exposed to it before and haven’t developed an immunity to it.
  • The virus is spread primarily through mosquito bites, but it can also be transmitted through sexual contact.
  • There’s no vaccine or treatment for Zika. However, the Food and Drug Administration has given approval to the Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania-based Inovio Pharmaceuticals to test an experimental vaccine on people.
  • Only one out of five people infected with the virus will develop flu-like symptoms, which are usually mild and may include fever and joint pain. The virus remains in the bloodstream for a matter of days. People who have been infected are probably immune to future infections.
  • The major health risk the virus poses right now is to pregnant women and their unborn babies. That’s because of the connection between Zika and microcephaly, a neurological condition in which infants are born with abnormally small heads and brains. Microcephaly can lead to developmental delays, as well as vision, hearing, and mobility problems.
  • Four babies have been born with Zika-related birth defects in the United States. According to the CDC, “laboratory evidence of possible Zika virus infection” has been found in 265 pregnant women in the States, and in 216 in U.S. territories, as of June 16.
  • Several countries affected by the Zika outbreak have reported an increased incidence of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a rare disorder in which the immune system attacks the nervous system, causing weakness or even paralysis.
  • The WHO has taken the position that “there is scientific consensus that the Zika virus is a cause of microcephaly and GBS.” In an April 7 report, the WHO said this was based on “a growing body of preliminary research.”
  • The WHO has said that “there is no public health justification for postponing or canceling” the upcoming Olympic Games in Brazil. But several athletes, including golfer Rory McIlroy, have withdrawn from the games due to health concerns. In a statement last month, the WHO issued health recommendations for athletes and visitors attending the Olympics.
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So what steps can you take to protect yourself from the Zika virus? The first and best preventive measure is to reduce your risk for mosquito bites.

The CDC recommends using Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellents, and covering exposed skin with long-sleeved shirts and long pants. If the weather outside is warm, keep to air-conditioned areas, because mosquitoes thrive in the heat. Stagnant water attracts mosquitoes, so make sure there are no pools of water on your property or nearby.

If you’re pregnant and planning a trip to areas affected by the outbreak, check out the CDC’s travel guidelines and health notices. Pregnant women who return from an area with the virus should consult healthcare providers about possibly getting tested, especially if they have any flu-like symptoms.

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PHOTO:  Felipe Dana/AP Photo

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