Zika virus made a grand entrance into many of our lives in 2016, going from an unknown medical condition to a public health concern in just a few weeks. But how much should we care about Zika this year?
People feared the global ramifications of the mosquito-borne illness largely because it not only spreads from mosquito to person, but vise versa too. And on top of that, Zika infections can also spread from person to person through sexual transmission.
Despite the large number of people who were unfortunately infected with the virus last year, conversations about Zika in the media and around dinner tables have largely diminished much like other viral epidemics including swine flu, bird flu and Ebola. So where did Zika go?
Why Zika and other viruses come and go
Mother nature gets a lot of the credit for viruses having the ability to seemingly vanish off the face of the earth.
Thanks to evolutionary survival strategies, viruses have an intelligence of their own with the uncanny ability to adapt and survive through mutations, but viruses also can go into hibernation periods.
Hibernation periods boost virus ability to live and spread
An example of a virus with an especially long hibernation periods is HIV (the human immunodeficiency virus).
The virus’s long hibernation, which can last decades in people with HIV, appears to boost its ability to live and spread within people, according to researchers published in Cell back in February, 2015.
New evidence suggests that inactivity during hibernation periods may be an evolutionary strategy to help the virus to survive and spread.
For the public, it may seem like the viruses have disappeared, but it’s only a matter of time before they surface again at a future date. And Zika, carried by the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, has done just that!
Many people don’t know that the Zika virus has been around for over 60 years in humans. In that time, Zika has been causing small outbreaks around the world, but after making it’s mark from 2015-2016, the virus seems to be hibernating once again.
Does this mean I shouldn’t worry about Zika Virus this year?
We are very unlikely to see a zika epidemic in North America in the coming months, according to computer modelers who predicted last year’s outbreaks with precision.
During a recent interview with Science magazine, Andrew Monaghan, a modeler at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, says his team hasn’t updated the Zika forecast it did back in 2016.
However he suggests that later this spring the virus may transmit locally in U.S. areas that now have local dengue transmission.
“So, in addition to continued high risk for Zika virus transmission in Brownsville and metropolitan Miami[, Florida,] next year, there may be elevated risk in communities in central Florida, the Florida Keys, as well as border communities in the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas,” Monaghan says.
But he notes that he of course could be wrong with his predictions.
“It’s always difficult to forecast virus transmission due to the complex dynamics of these systems,” he notes.
It’s important to remember though, the peak of mosquito season is during the summer months, especially depending on where you live or travel.
As of now, Zika appears to be under full control across the states with fewer and smaller outbreaks, and an occasional travel related case being reported.
What does this mean for Zika virus prevention?
Zika’s greatest health concern is the increased risk in pregnant women. If infected, the virus can be passed from mother to baby. Here are some fast facts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- Infection during pregnancy can cause certain birth defects
- There is no vaccine to prevent or medicine to treat Zika.
- We don’t know if there is a safe time to travel to an area with Zika during your pregnancy.
- The likelihood that Zika infection will affect a pregnancy is still unclear.
- The possibility a baby will have birth defects if infected at birth is also unknown.
Pregnant women who have traveled or had sex with their partner within the boundaries of a Zika zone, as determined by the CDC, should still get tested and monitored whether they get sick or not. A simple blood test is available in all states.
For anyone, pregnant or not, Zika virus symptoms include feeling like you are coming down with the flu although only four out of five people infected come down with symptoms.
How about other mosquito-borne illnesses?
For everyone, it’s important to protect yourself from the deadliest living creature on earth, (the mosquito) whenever possible. From Malaria to West Nile Virus, mosquitoes infect millions of people annually.
Despite a significant decline over the last fifteen years, more than 400 million people died from Malaria last year alone! Hundreds of thousands patients worldwide require hospitalizations and treatment, yet still one out of five patients in Africa fail to recover and die.
Avoidance of mosquito bites is the key and protection begins with prevention including having:
- screened windows
- mosquito nets
- protective clothing with embedded repellant if necessary
- using repellant containing more than 20% of Deet
- Referring to the CDC to look up areas of active Zika virus transmission when traveling
We may be safer in 2017, but mosquito-borne illnesses such as Zika will resurface when we least expect it. Keeping these dangerous viruses away from the areas where we live or travel to is vital.
Be informed, practice protection along with prevention to keep you and your family healthy this year and beyond.
This blog post was written by Dr. Joseph Mosquera and copy edited by Arlene Borenstein-Zuluaga and Elara Mosquera
For any questions, comments, or suggestions, feel free to email Elara@Saludmovil.com.