Wholly Healthy: Understanding the Zika Virus

It seems increasingly as if the names of diseases originate from science fiction novels. This is certainly the case with one of our latest concerns, the Zika virus.

First described in Uganda in 1947 and named for a forest there, Zika virus disease has lately made the news due to a large number of cases that have appeared in Brazil.

While the odd name is a little funny to our ears, the disease decidedly is not. Zika is related to such viral illnesses as dengue fever (sometimes called “break-bone fever”) and yellow fever, which has had dramatic effects on human activity throughout history.

Like so many tropical illnesses, Zika is a mosquito-borne virus with symptoms lasting from a few days to one week: fever, rash, joint pain, red eyes. (Sometimes I see travelers who come home to the emergency departments where I work and who have the same sort of complaints. It can be quite daunting to pin down a specific disease process in those instances.)

The problem with Zika, as you may know from recent news accounts, is that it may cause growth abnormalities in developing fetuses, including limitations on brain growth and subsequently microcephaly, which means an abnormally small head. Miscarriage also appears to be a risk.

As I mentioned earlier, humans usually catch it from mosquito bites. But it appears that Zika is passed from a mother to her infant in the uterus, and also from men to women during sexual intercourse.

Unfortunately, while Zika has expanded from Africa to many equatorial areas, we still don’t know enough about it to say it is the source of the growth problems lately associated with the virus. (Association is not causation, as we often say in medicine. That is, if a group of men were standing on the train track smoking and were hit and killed by a train, smoking might be associated but did not cause their deaths.) Anyway, moving on …

Zika also seems to lead, in some cases, to Guillain–Barré syndrome, which is a type of paralysis that starts in both legs and moves up to the arms and, ultimately (in some instances) to the diaphragm and muscles of the head and neck, leading to the inability to breathe without assistance. Most but not all of those with Guillain–Barré recover completely.

There is no vaccine or antiviral to treat Zika, so prevention is key. By this we mean the wise use of clothing and mosquito repellents and avoidance of locations and times of day when mosquitos are most active. Women of child-bearing age and their husbands should talk to their physicians about the risk of disease and the possibility of pregnancy if traveling to affected areas.

While it is not naturally occurring in the U.S., many of our readers do mission work in affected areas, so I felt this topic was relevant.

Here’s a useful link: http://www.cdc.gov/zika/pregnancy/protect-yourself.html

Also, here is a link about why we don’t use DDT anymore, but should: http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-truth-about-ddt-and-silent-spring