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Published on May 09, 2016

Zika virus may be hard to detect

Zika virus may be hard to detect

The Zika virus poses a risk to unborn babies, but it can also sicken anyone who travels to affected regions.

While the overwhelming majority of people who contract the illness will recover fully, “the virus can create serious neurological problems for other people besides those carrying babies,” warned John Hamjian, MD a neurologist at Cape Cod Hospital.

Often, those infected with the virus may not even know about it because they may have no or relatively mild symptoms, he said.

Typically Zika virus symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Joint pain
  • Conjunctivitis

The symptoms usually subside after a few days, but the virus can remain in the bloodstream for months afterwards, Dr. Hamjian said. As a result, the Zika virus can be unknowingly spread to others through sexual transmission. Since the antibodies that identify Zika virus remain testable for only a few weeks, he urged anyone who has traveled to infected areas and felt ill to have his or her blood tested as soon as possible.

Studies have shown that men can pass the Zika virus to their sexual partners, especially through semen where it remains longer than in their blood. Recently the outbreak attracted international attention when thousands of babies were born in Brazil with microcephaly, or unusually small heads.

For that reason, William Agel, MD, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Cape Cod Hospital, urged women who are planning or hoping to become pregnant to use extra caution.

“We recommend those women avoid traveling to areas known to be infected with the virus or those that are geographically close to them,” he said. “We’re also recommending that women who are planning to become pregnant or who already are insist that partners who have traveled to infected areas use condoms, as recommended on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.

At this writing, the CDC recommends that men who have traveled to infected areas use condoms for two to six months depending upon their circumstances.

“Women planning to become pregnant should also keep a firm eye on that website,” Dr. Agel added. “We’re learning more about the Zika virus all the time and reports about it change almost daily.”

Zika, ( from the virus family Falviviridae and the genus Flavivirus) is related to dengue, chikungunya, Japanese encephalitis and West Nile virus. Spread by daytime bites from the Aedes species mosquito (A. aegypti and A. albopictus), it first appeared in 1947 in Uganda then moved eastward across Asia, Oceania and the Caribbean. By early April, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that the Zika had reached Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean and is continuing to spread to other countries and territories. By early this year, 312 travel-related cases of Zika were reported in this country and there is speculation that cities with tropical climates like Houston and New Orleans have the greatest risk for original infections.

In addition to the danger to pregnant women and their fetuses, there is also the potential risk for anyone who has had a Zika virus infection to suffer from the Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare but severe neurological disorder that results in temporary paralysis and kills 5 percent of people who develop it, said Dr. Hamjian. If promptly hospitalized and treated, the victim can be cured, but recovery may be a long process.

A study published in The Lancet of 42 patients in French Polynesia stricken with Guillain-Barré in 2013 found that nearly all of them were suspected of having recently had a Zika infection.

Dr. Agel observed that “here in the temperate zone we have more time before the virus appears but it’s still a concern.” That’s because another type of Aedes mosquito which carries the West Nile virus (and has appeared in Massachusetts) may also transmit the Zika virus in the future.

“So use reasonable precautions during the warm months and try to avoid getting mosquito bites,” he added. He recommends using an insect repellant with Deet when outdoors, using screens on windows, wearing long sleeves where possible and removing standing water on your property.