Travelers beware: Zika virus spreading

  • Published
  • By Merrie Schilter-Lowe
  • 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Ah, summer. The season means different things to different people. To public health officials at Travis Air Force Base, California, summer means travel and mosquitoes, both of which could be problematic, according to Lt. Col. Natalie Johns, 60th Aerospace Medicine Squadron.

“Zika is spreading,” said Johns, public health flight commander at David Grant USAF Medical Center.

“Last year, we were concerned about people traveling to South and Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. Zika has spread to Central West Africa, Southeast Asia – including the Philippines – Singapore and Fiji,” said Johns.

Zika, also known as Zika virus disease, is an infectious disease mainly spread by mosquito bites. The virus has been shown to cause severe birth defects. Other problems detected in infants before birth include eye defects, hearing loss and impaired growth.

“People traveling to Zika-affected areas – officially or unofficially – should be educated on the dangers on exposure to the virus. Women in their first trimester of pregnancy should not travel to Zika-affected areas at all,” said Johns.

Women trying to conceive and their partners should also avoid these area since the virus can spread through unprotected sex. There is no vaccine to prevent the virus.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention began advising pregnant women in August 2016 to get tested for the virus if they lived in, traveled to or had unprotected sex with someone in Miami-Dade County, Florida.

In December 2016, the CDC issued travel warnings for Brownsville, Texas, after the first case of Zika virus was reported. Additional cases have been reported in the area, according to the agency’s website.

Since January 1, the CDC reports 119 cases of Zika virus in the United States and 495 cases in U.S. territories.

During the first quarter, 25 Air Force patients tested positive for Zika virus. Most were active duty members and most traveled to the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and St. Croix, according to the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.

In adults, the virus has been linked to Guillain-Barre syndrome – a rare disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks the nervous system, which may lead to muscle weakness and paralysis. Most people recover from the illness, according to the CDC.

Some people infected with the Zika virus may not have symptoms. Others may experience fever, skin rashes, muscle and joint pain, headache and red eyes. Symptoms may last a week but usually are not severe enough for the patient to be hospitalizes. People rarely die from the virus, according to the CDC.

“Places where you find the Zika virus, you find other mosquito-borne infectious diseases… such as dengue or chikungunya,” said Johns. “The difference is that Zika affects special populations. Pregnant women and those trying to become pregnant are at the highest risk.”

Symptoms of dengue and chikungunya viruses are similar to those of Zika. Also like Zika, there is no vaccine to protect against infection or medication to treat infected patients.

Early detection and treatment of the dengue virus can lower the risk of medical complications and death, according to the CDC. Symptoms of chikungunya may last a week and can be severe and disabling.

In addition to Zika, dengue and chikungunya virus, mosquitoes spread West Nile virus, said Johns. The virus affects humans and birds and there is no medication or vaccine to prevent infection.

Last year, Solano County reported four cases of WNV in humans – none resulted in death. However, the California Department of Public Health reported the death of a Sacramento County senior citizen in August 2016.

One out of five people infected with the WNV develop fever and other symptoms. Less than 1 percent develop serious neurologic illnesses such as encephalitis or meningitis, according to the CDPH.

People age 50 and older and those with diabetes or hypertension have a higher chance of getting sick and are more likely to develop complications.

To protect against mosquito bites, public health recommends using insect repellent, covering exposed body parts during the early morning and evening when mosquitoes are most active and draining standing water where mosquitoes lay eggs.

For more information about mosquito-borne viruses, contact DGMC’s public health department at (707) 423-5464.

For information on stateside areas with Zika warnings, visit the CDC website at: https://www.cdc.gov/zika/geo/domestic-guidance.html. If traveling outside the country, go to https://www.cdc.gov/travel/page/world-map-areas-with-zika. 

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