My travel clinic fields a lot of questions about mosquito borne diseases, the most popular of which are obviously malaria and dengue fever, but one very few people are aware of is Zika disease. This article is here to give you all the information you need to know.
Zika virus (ZIKV) was first identifed in April 1947 in Uganda, but the first report of human ZIKV infection occurred in 1964, so despite some statements that this is a ‘new’ mosquito borne disease, it isn’t.
Zika is prevalent throughout much of Africa, including Nigeria, Central African Republic, Egypt, Gabon, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Uganda, but isn’t isolated to Africa alone. Much of Asia, India, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Oceania have reports of the disease too.
What is Zika virus?
Zika virus is spread by the aedes species of mosquito including the Aedes aegypti mosquito which predominantly bites during the day, and is related to dengue, Japanese encephalitis, yellow fever and West Nile virus.
The illness is similar to dengue fever and is generally mild, often lasting for up to a week at most. The incubation period is usually between 3-12 days.
There is a link between Zika virus and birth defects, most notably microcephaly, and it is recommended that pregnant women are extra vigilant or avoid travelling to the region affected.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of Zika virus are very generalised and common in many other ilnesses too, including dengue fever and malaria, which can make it difficult to diagnose without tests. They are often not very severe and can last up to a week. Hospitalisation is very uncommon and deaths are very rare. Common symptoms include:
- Myalgia, (muscle pain).
- Arthralgia, (joint pain).
Less common symptoms include:
- Abdominal cramps.
It is important to remember that for the vast majority of people the symptoms will be very mild and will pass relatively quickly. The big risk is for pregnant women as there is a lot of evidence that it is a significant risk factor that can cause birth defects.
Zika and pregnancy.
There is significant evidence that Zika virus is a primary cause of birth defects in newborns, specifically microcephaly (abnormal brain development and head size) or congenital Zika syndrome.
It is strongly advised that all pregnant women consider postponing areas of high or moderate risk of zika virus until after birth. If travel is unavoidable then you should take extra bite prevention precautions.
It is also important that if you are in – or have returned recently from – an area that is at risk of Zika then you are strict with protection while having sex, and that includes all forms, as Zika can be transmitted sexually too.
Diagnosis and treatment.
The only way Zika virus can be diagnosed properly is by a blood test. If you are in an area where dengue or malaria is present anyway then you should seek medical attention if you develop these symptoms anyway, as they are very similar to the presenting symptoms of dengue or malaria and you will need to check if you have any other mosquito borne disease.
There is no specific anti-viral treatment for Zika virus, and there is no vaccination either. It can only really be treated symptomatically such as pain relief for headaches or muscle pain.
Recommendations for travellers.
The best and only way to avoid getting Zika virus is mosquito bite prevention. Using DEET spray, wearing appropriate clothing, using coils outside and being vigilant around riverbanks or where pools of stagnant water could be (even old air con units). The more you reduce the risk of being bitten, the more you reduce the risk of developing the disease.
If you do develop any of the above symptoms above, then seek medical attention as soon as possible and remember that unless you are pregnant (or there is a risk of becoming pregnant) then the symptoms can be managed relatively well.
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Michael Huxley is a published author, professional adventurer and founder of the travel website, Bemused Backpacker. He has spent the last twenty years travelling to over 100 countries on almost every continent, slowly building Bemused Backpacker into a successful business after leaving a former career in emergency nursing and travel medicine, and continues to travel the world on numerous adventures every year.