Zika virus infection symptoms are usually mild, leading those infected to postpone going for hospital treatment – and this is how Zika goes undetected.
IN May 2015, Brazil reported an outbreak of Zika virus infection. By December, the numbers have reached an estimated 1.3 million suspected cases. The infection has already spread to other countries. In the United States, there were more than a hundred laboratory confirmed cases of Zika virus infections.
But what really, dear readers, is the Zika Virus? Where did it come from?
Zika virus is closely related to the dengue virus and Yellow Fever virus. The virus is transmitted to people by mosquitoes that may also be the same mosquito responsible for transmitting the dreaded dengue virus.
Zika virus is not a new virus. It has been around for more than half a century. It was first discovered in 1947 in Uganda and has already caused several outbreaks since then.
Common symptoms of Zika virus infection are fever, joint pains, conjunctivitis and rashes. The illness may last from a few days to a week and is usually mild, hence people don’t feel the need to go to the hospital for treatment – and this is why most Zika virus infections go undetected. Once infected though, the infected person will have lifelong protection from future Zika virus infections.
Symptoms associated with Zika virus are not specific to this particular virus since the same symptoms are also present in other virus infections such as: fever, fatigue, rashes over the face, body and extremities which may be itchy, joint pains, and conjunctivitis.
Other symptoms that may also be present but uncommon include headache, body weakness, dizziness, swelling of extremities, retro-orbital pain, loss of appetite, photophobia, gastrointestinal disorders, sore throat, cough, ulcers, back pain, sweating and lymphadenopathy.
Signs and symptoms of Zika virus infection are non-specific and similar to any other viral infection. The best way to confirm the diagnosis is to undergo laboratory tests.
There is no specific treatment for Zika virus. Similar to other viral infections such as dengue, treatment is directed towards alleviating the symptoms: paracetamol for fever and pain, and/or anti-itch medications if the rash gets too itchy.
As with other viral infections, it is best to avoid Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) as these drugs increase the risk of bleeding, same as in dengue.
If you’re diagnosed with Zika virus infection, the following are recommended: rest, increase oral fluids, take paracetamol for fever and pain and avoid NSAIDs, and protect yourself from mosquito bites.
It’s quite difficult to do but the only way not to get infected is to prevent getting bitten by an infected mosquito. This is why travelling to countries with active Zika transmission should be avoided. You can also use mosquito repellent, mosquito nets, wearing of long sleeved shirt and long pants, and other mosquito deterrents.
Even if you already are infected with Zika, protection from mosquito bites is essential because the virus remains high in your blood during the first week of your illness.
When an uninfected mosquito bites you, it will get infected with Zika and can transmit the infection to another person.
In the event that you are experiencing fever, joint pains, or any of the common signs of virus infection, you have to consult your doctor immediately to provide you proper advice – especially if you are pregnant and you’ve just returned from a country with active Zika virus transmission, or if you’ve been in contact with a person who had just been in such places.
Most Zika virus infections are mild and self-limited. The question now: if it is mild, then why are we so worried about the Zika virus?
Unfortunately, there are infection complications which are alarming. In pregnant women exposed to the virus, the virus can infect the unborn child; this can cause congenital malformation (microcephaly), eye and/or hearing defects, absent or incomplete brain structures or impaired growth. And because the infection is so mild, the unsuspecting pregnant mother may not even be aware that she is already infected with Zika virus and worse, it has also affected her unborn child.
There is another disease currently linked to Zika virus infection. It has been noted that a significant number of people infected with Zika virus also have Guillain-Barré Syndrome or GBS, a rare neurological disease.
This disease may be caused by our own immune system attacking our nerve cells, which may lead to paralysis. GBS is life threatening as it leads to full paralysis; it also paralyses the muscles involved in breathing, which could mean mechanical means to assist breathing may be warranted.
Although most people affected with GBS fully recovers, there are some cases of permanent damage or even death, mostly due to respiratory paralysis. Currently, the relationship of Zika virus to GBS is still under investigation.
Text DR. SUZETTE DE LEON