Dr Ciara Kelly on the Zika virus - 'Obey the rules and stay safe'
Published 15/02/2016 | 02:30
There's a lot of talking and indeed worrying currently about the Zika virus and whether or not it's going to be a problem for us here in Ireland. Many Irish people will be travelling over the coming months to Zika-affected areas, so it's likely that Irish people will be infected, and indeed there have already been a small number of confirmed cases here and that number is likely to grow. So what do you actually need to know?
Zika is a mild viral infection contracted by being bitten by the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which are widespread in South and Central America, but which also live and bite in some parts of southern Europe.
Zika is not very virulent and only causes a symptomatic illness in about 20 pc of those infected. Those who do contract Zika will experience fever, aches and pains, headache and the like - and will be unwell for a period of a few days, and will get better generally with no need for anything more than a couple of paracetamol, some fluids and rest.
Where Zika is causing a problem is when it is contracted during pregnancy. Much like Rubella before it, Zika - though a mild infection generally - causes foetal abnormalities of the brain and eyes and can cause a condition called microcephaly - up until now, a rare birth defect - where babies are born with smaller than normal heads. All of this is, of course, devastating for an expectant mother and her child.
There is no vaccine currently against Zika and no treatment to prevent any foetal damage caused by contracting it, so the main way to avoid exposure to it is by not being bitten by the mosquitoes. The Aedes mozzies bite during the day as well as the night - unlike most mozzies - so the bottom line is you need to take very strict precautions 24/7 should you be in a Zika-infected area.
So what can you do if you've booked your holliers on the Inca trail and are now feeling concerned? Well, first up, don't get bitten! Wear long, loose, light coloured clothing - day and night. Use tropical strength insect repellent such as one containing DEET. Sleep under a mosquito net. You can also get nets and clothing impregnated with repellent. If you're in an affected area don't leave any standing water inside your dwelling. Make sure insect screens are intact and try and keep air-conditioning on.
If you're unlucky and catch Zika, please make sure you practice these strict precautions for the first week of your illness - so that any mozzies that bite you won't contract it from you and go on and spread it to others. This is very important! The spread is from humans to mosquitoes as well as from mosquitoes to humans!
Sexual transmission is also possible, so for that first week while you have a viraemia - a high circulating level of virus in your blood stream - you can pass Zika on to others through sexual contact. If you're pregnant at the same time as you have Zika there is a significant risk of harm to the foetus.
If you become pregnant after that first week when viral levels drop, the good news is your pregnancy is unlikely to be affected.
If you think that you may have been exposed and are pregnant - blood tests can be done to assess whether or not you have had a recent Zika infection - as your pregnancy goes on, ultrasounds can be performed to see if your baby is developing normally.
Until such time as a vaccine becomes available, avoiding infection becomes hugely important for pregnant women. Eradication of the mosquitoes also needs to happen but avoiding being bitten and the ensuing devastation, cannot be over emphasised.
Sunday Indo Living