Health Report: New Concerns about the Zika Virus

Health organizations around the globe are raising new concerns about the Zika virus which, according to the World Health Organization, can cause a condition called “microcephaly” that results in an abnormally small head in newborns. However, in recent weeks experts also have started linking the virus to premature birth, eye problems and other neurological conditions in babies born to mothers who were infected while pregnant.

Scientists have linked Zika to a condition similar to multiple sclerosis, called acute disseminated encephalomyeltis, or ADEM, which is a swelling of the brain and spinal cord that affects the myelin, the coating around nerve fibers, according to a paper that will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology conference in Vancouver. Unlike multiple sclerosis, which is a chronic illness, ADEM usually consists of a single attack and most people recover within six months but in some cases, the disease comes back, according to the paper.

What are the signs and symptoms of Zika virus?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting for several days to a week after being bitten by an infected mosquito. People usually don’t get sick enough to go to the hospital, and they very rarely die of Zika. For this reason, many people might not realize they have been infected. Once a person has been infected, he or she is likely to be protected from future infections.

If you have traveled to South or Central America, or another region that had been affected by the virus and begin to feel ill with symptoms that could indicate the presence of infection with the Zika virus, be sure to let your physician know. This is especially true for pregnant women and their sexual partners.

Can the virus be prevented?

Zika virus is transmitted to people primarily through the bite of an infected mosquito, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). These are the same mosquitoes that spread dengue and chikungunya viruses. Prevention methods to avoid mosquito bites should be used in areas where the Zika virus is spread: avoid spending time near standing water, use an insect repellants approved by the Environmental Protection Agency and cover exposed skin when possible, even during the day and while sleeping.

Health officials have learned that while the Zika virus is most often spread via mosquito bites, it can also be spread through sexual contact. Once a person has been infected, he or she is likely to be protected from future infections, according to the CDC. However, it is important to mention a previous diagnosis with your physician.

What treatment options are available?

Currently, there are no medications or vaccines available to treat infection with the Zika virus. The current recommendations for treatment are similar to guidelines for treating a cold: plenty of rest, fluids and acetaminophen to reduce a fever if one if present. If you are pregnant, or think you might be pregnant, it’s imperative to seek medical treatment immediately if you suspect you may be infected.

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