Over this past year, stories about the Zika virus have been dominating headlines across the world. The media explosion began after the first case was recorded in Brazil in February. Previously unheard of in these areas, Zika cases started to pop up all over Central and South America. Since then, the media has been abuzz with pictures of the devastating birth defects caused by the virus, and news about the 2016 Summer Olympics being hosted in Rio, the country with the highest number of confirmed Zika cases. America’s attention has been grabbed.
What do we do with this information? What does it mean for us here, this summer, in northern New Jersey? Should the risk of Zika in neighboring countries impact our summer travel plans? Do the 257 cases in New York and New Jersey mean we should be slathering bug spray on our kids before sending them off to day camp? What about the link between the virus and birth defects; what does that mean for those who are pregnant, or contemplating pregnancy? Let’s take a look at the facts and try to find some answers.
In terms of travel plans, it is important to look at the status of Zika outside of the United States. In the most recent list released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are almost 50 countries and territories in Central and South America where travelers are at risk of Zika exposure. That means that in these areas, local mosquitoes are infected with Zika and spreading it to people.
Traveling to any of these places means risking exposure to the virus. As there is no official vaccine or treatment yet for Zika, the CDC has established guidelines for anyone visiting these areas. These include instructions on how to prevent mosquito bites while abroad, and measures to take after you return, such as viral testing for those with symptoms, as well as taking steps to prevent being bitten back at home, thus spreading Zika to American mosquitoes that could then pass on the virus to others. For more information about traveling risks and helpful precautions, you can visit the CDC website.
Now, what about the United States? The CDC has reported a total of 935 Zika cases nationwide, with the most cases being in Florida and New York, due to their high populations and common travel patterns to affected regions. So does that mean that visiting Miami requires the same consideration as traveling to Brazil? Should we be sending up cases of bug spray to our kids in camp in the Catskills?
The answer is, not at all. Because every case of Zika in the United States has been contracted from a source outside of the country. To date, there has been no evidence of any Zika-carrying mosquitoes anywhere in the USA; any American who was infected from a mosquito was bitten somewhere outside the country. And although there have been 13 cases in the U.S. where the virus was sexually transmitted, every person who first transmitted it had originally contracted it outside of the country.
The main reason that Zika has generated so much anxiety is not because of its typical viral effects on the person infected. For a nonpregnant person with a competent immune system, the effects are actually relatively mild. Symptoms typically do not require hospitalization and last no longer than a week. What accounts for much of the fear are the haunting pictures of severe birth defects that can occur when a pregnant woman is exposed to the virus. The most well-known of these defects is microcephaly, which is an abnormally small head size and incomplete brain development for the baby. Because of the significant degree of added danger, couples who are pregnant, or contemplating pregnancy, need to consider the risks of traveling to a “Zika region.”
When reading about the Zika virus, the outlook can seem grim. We have seen media coverage about all the new places Zika cropped up, about Olympians refusing to compete because of the location and the tragic pictures of sick infants. But we hear much less about all the new developments in science and medicine that can help protect us from the virus and its spread. For example, the FDA has just approved Inovio Pharmaceuticals to be the first to enter their Zika vaccine into the critical stage of human testing.
Inovio is using a relatively new technique called DNA vaccination, which is a very effective way of providing long-term immunity to the virus. Inovio also used this technique when, in a similar scenario, worldwide panic erupted after an Ebola outbreak was reported. Although the Ebola DNA vaccine was very successful at animal and human trials, it was never completed because the number of Ebola cases began to slow. Hopefully, the same will happen here and the number of Zika cases will start to taper off; until then, by being smart and staying educated, we can all have a great, safe and healthy summer.
This article is meant to provide general information but is not meant to be used as a comprehensive medical resource. For specific questions please consult your physician and the CDC website at http://www.cdc.gov/.
By Rachel Retter
Rachel Retter is a summer intern at the Jewish Link and a rising senior at Manhattan High School for Girls.