Zika, or ZIKV, has dominated the international news of late, with dramatic photos of people with conjunctivitis, skin rashes and, more alarmingly still, babies with misshapen heads. The virus, once believed to cause only minor illness, has now been closely linked with the birth defects microcephaly and anencephaly and the neurological condition Guillain Barré syndrome.
Zika is currently being studied by research teams around the world, and new evidence continues to emerge regarding its effects. For that reason, if you are concerned about the virus it is important to continue consulting the latest information for any recent developments. Updated travel guidelines can be found here.
Information for travellers to affected areas
Though Zika does not occur naturally in the UK, 7 cases of the virus have been diagnosed in UK travellers as of 10 February 2016.
At this time the only way to reduce risk of contracting the disease is by preventing bites by the Aedes mosquito – for full mosquito bite precautions click here.
Pregnant women, women who plan to get pregnant, and people with significant health issues are encouraged to reconsider travel and consult with a health professional if their plans include visiting countries where there is a known outbreak of the Zika virus. Outbreaks are listed on the country information pages found on the Travel Health Pro website.
If you are pregnant and have visited a country with an ongoing Zika outbreak, whether you have experienced any Zika symptoms or not, it is vitally important that you visit your midwife or GP and disclose your travel history. He or she can advise you of the potential risks and help you schedule an ultrasound scan to monitor your baby’s growth. If any issues are detected you will be directed to a specialist foetal medicine service. If you have active Zika symptoms, a blood test will be carried out to determine if you have the virus.
If you are planning to become pregnant after visiting an affected area, you should also follow the above protocol of visiting your midwife or GP to discuss the risks and your options. Even if you have shown no symptoms of the Zika virus and have not been unwell, it is recommended to wait at least 28 days after your return home to try to conceive. Those who have had Zika should wait at least 6 months after full recovery before trying to conceive.
Men who visit or have visited an area with active Zika transmission should abstain from sex or correctly use condoms with female partners who are pregnant or are at risk of becoming pregnant:
- For 28 days after return if no Zika symptoms are present.
- For 6 months after return if a case of Zika has been confirmed or if an illness symptomatic of Zika is present.
*Though risk of sexual transmission of Zika is considered low, it has been found in semen up to two weeks after patients recovered from the illness.
Background information on Zika
What is Zika?
The Zika virus was first identified in rhesus monkeys in Uganda’s Zika forest in 1947. Several years later it was identified in humans. According to WHO, Zika, is a mosquito-borne virus transmitted by infected mosquitos form the Aedes genus. This is the same type of mosquito that transmits the dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever viruses. Zika can also be transmitted sexually, as evidenced by a case in Dallas, Texas, and in a small number of cases it has been transmitted from a mother to her unborn child.
Contrary to popular belief, the current outbreak of the disease is not the first; outbreaks were reported in the Pacific in 2007 and 2013, though the virus previously circulated through Africa and South and South East Asia without significant outbreaks being reported.
On 1 February 2016, WHO declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern due to the occurrence of microcephaly and other neurological disorders in certain Zika-affected areas. The latest outbreak was reported in South and Central America and the Caribbean, and WHO has stated that it is likely to spread to all countries in the Americas where the carrier mosquitos can thrive.
Who does Zika affect?
Zika can affect people of any age. There is currently no vaccine for the virus, though it is believed that the development of a vaccine could be the best prospect for controlling it. The Zika virus often causes no symptoms, and when symptoms do occur they are normally mild, lasting only up to 7 days.
- Skin rash (sometimes itchy)
- Conjunctivitis, or red eyes
- Eye pain
- Swelling of the joints, often in the hands and feet
- Muscle pain
Though rarely fatal on its own, the Zika virus can significantly affect in utero brain development. Of greatest concern is the link between Zika and brain defects in babies after the pregnant mother is exposed to the virus, with vision and hearing problems in infants now believed to be caused from this exposure.