By Eugene Seymour, MD, MPH
The Zika virus was first discovered in 1947 in rhesus monkeys in Uganda. The virus quickly jumped to humans, with the first cases in people recorded in 1952 in Uganda and Tanzania. Outbreaks were reported in Yap in 2007; French Polynesia in 2013; and Brazil, Colombia, and Cape Verde in 2015. In addition, cases have been reported in the Continental United States. It is now estimated that the vast majority of Puerto Ricans will become infected within the next 2 years.This is thought to occur because of large mosquito populations, crowed urban conditions associated with lack of window screens and air conditioning.
In the Americas, Brazil has been hardest hit with over 1 million cases reported thus far. As of July 1st, there have been approximately 600 cases in the continental US, mostly all from people who returned from Zika zones in Central and South America. The CDC is following over 300 pregnant women who were infected by the virus in their first trimester of pregnancy.
The virus is spread by two species of mosquitos, Aedes egypti in urban areas and Aedes albopictus in the southern states along the Gulf Coast. It is thought that the US population will largely be spared from the mosquito-borne aspect of this disease. However, approximately 40M Americans travel each year to zones where Zika has been found. The more disconcerting aspect of transmission is through sexual intercourse, either vaginal or oral. The CDC recommends that men use condoms for 8 weeks after visiting a country where both the Zika virus and mosquitos are found in abundance. The problem with this advice is that the virus is known to persist in the semen for months, even possibly years. In addition, most people are unaware that they have been infected so they may inadvertently pass the virus along to their spouse. This could be a serious problem since up to 15% of women infected with the virus during their 1st trimester will give birth to a child with microcephaly. This condition develops when brain cells are destroyed early in the pregnancy. There are a number of other neurologic and ophthalmologic conditions found in these newborns. This is reminiscent of the neurologic and ophthalmologic abnormalities that we found in the children of women who had been infected with the Rubella virus (German measles) during their first trimester. It is estimated that these each of these Zika damaged children could cost society up to $10M during the course of their lifetimes. In addition to the damaged children, Zika infection has also been associated with the Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS), a situation in which a person’s own immune system attacks and damages their peripheral nervous system, sometimes causing life-threatening or permanent muscle weakness or paralysis.
So with all of this grim news, what are the risks to Americans? Unless you have traveled to a Zika zone or have had unprotected sex with someone who has, the risks range from minimal to nonexistent. That being said, it’s important to eliminate any free-standing water where mosquitos could breed and to use mosquito repellent when outside in areas where mosquito populations are high. The Centers for Disease Control website (cdc.gov) is an excellent source of current information
Dr. Seymour is the CEO of NanoViricides, Inc, a biotech company currently developing treatments for various infectious diseases caused by viruses such as herpes, shingles, influenza etc.
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