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ZIKA: where are we now?

Mosquito on the skin

It has been two years since a Zika virus outbreak and its link to birth defects in Brazil made international headlines - prompting travel warnings. Since then, Zika has landed in Texas with six cases of local mosquito transmission to humans in far southern portions of the state. While no current evidence that suggests this year will be any worse than last year, Zika does remain a concern.

"Last year Zika was a new disease, people didn't know anything about it and that caused a lot of worry and fear," says Sofia Ansari, MD, infectious disease specialist on the medical staff of Methodist Richardson Medical Center. "We still don't have a vaccine or treatment for the Zika virus, but we do have a lot more information and awareness of the virus this year."

Since 2015, Texas has seen 322 cases, but almost all were individuals who traveled to a Zika-affected nation and then returned to Texas. Eventually, the virus is expected to spread to mosquitoes all over Texas and put more people at risk.

"It's not if, but when we'll see local transmission of the Zika virus in North Texas," says Shantala Samart, MD, infectious disease specialist on the Methodist Mansfield medical staff. Dr. Samart has been studying the virus and adds that each new discovery invites more questions about the long-term effects of Zika.

More than Microcephaly

Doctors now know Zika can cause other serious problems in addition to microcephaly - a condition in which babies are born with smaller-than-normal heads. Scientists have added Guillain-Barré syndrome and epilepsy to the list of Zika complications, while noting some issues may not show up until long after birth.

"We're finding out babies that seem normal at birth may have more subtle birth defects later, such as learning, behavior, and other cognitive disorders," says Dr. Samart.

Dr. Samart says Zika symptoms in adults are fairly mild and include fever, skin rash, conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain or headache. Adults typically recover with a few days of rest, but scientists are still in the very early stages of figuring out what Zika is capable of long-term and all the ways the virus spreads.

Studying Zika's Spread

The Zika virus is transmitted primarily through the bite of an infected aedes mosquito, which also spreads Chikungunya and dengue. The mosquito is active in North Texas and can bite during the day or night.

Blood transfusions are another concern, but there haven't been any confirmed blood transfusion cases in the United States and blood is screened for the virus. But, sexual contact does spread Zika, though studies continue to try to pinpoint how long the virus stays in the body. So far, Dr. Samart says the virus has been documented in men's seminal fluid up to six months after an initial Zika infection.

More Zika Coming to Texas?

Mosquitoes become infected when they feed on a person with Zika. Infected mosquitoes can then spread the virus to other people.

North Texas has robust mosquito season here. The rains that come in April and May bring conditions that are ideal for mosquitoes, including standing water and heat. That coupled with frequent travel between Texas and places where Zika is active in South America, Central America and Mexico, increases the risk of bringing the virus to mosquitoes here.

Who's at risk?

Women who are pregnant or are trying to become pregnant are in the highest risk category, mainly because of the potential to transfer the virus to the fetus. Men with partners trying to get pregnant may also transmit Zika to an unborn child.

The Texas Department of State Health Services recommends testing all pregnant women in Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, Webb, Willacy, and Zapata counties in the first and second trimesters - along with any resident of those counties who has a rash and at least one other Zika symptom such as fever, joint pain, or eye redness.

Texans in the rest of the state should get tested for Zika if they have at least three Zika symptoms. Testing is recommended for all pregnant women who have traveled to areas with known Zika outbreaks.

Protect Yourself

There is currently no vaccine for Zika, but researchers are working towards that goal with federal funding.

In the meantime, health officials recommend practicing safer sex for six months for men and women who have traveled to areas of active Zika transmission. Sex partners of pregnant women who have been in those areas should also practice safer sex or abstain from sex throughout the pregnancy.

And, if you have to travel to areas where Zika is locally transmitted, you'll want to use mosquito nets as added protection while you sleep. If you're concerned about your recent travels and whether you're at risk, Dr. Samart recommends talking to your doctor to find out if you should be tested.

Experts agree that there is a two-pronged approach to protecting against Zika - prevent mosquito breeding and protection against bites. Everyone, most especially pregnant women, should follow these guidelines this summer.

To prevent mosquito breeding:

  • Get rid of standing water in and around the home, such as plant saucers, bird baths, old tires, buckets or cans that can collect water, broken drains, etc.
  • Change pet water daily
  • Cover trash and recycling bins
  • Be smart about lawn watering to avoid standing water that lasts for days
  • Consider using an insecticide if mosquitoes are prevalent in your area

To protect against bites:

  • Always use EPA-registered insect repellents including products that contain DEET. The effectiveness fades as you sweat, so make sure you reapply.
  • Long shirts and pants to keep skin covered - consider tucking pants into socks for extra precaution
  • Check window and door screens for rips, tears or holes
  • Limit your outdoor time during peak mosquito season

For the latest updates on Zika virus, Methodist Health System has got you covered, just click here.