A discussion about ‘Zika’ mosquitoes

Published 5:46 pm Friday, February 26, 2016

We now have additional reason to detest these warm weather “irritators” more than before. For years, we have known mosquitos could spread forms of encephalitis, West Nile and even Chikungunya disease. Now they have “sucked up” an even more alarming virus.

Rarely are the diseases transmitted by mosquitos deadly. People may become very ill and require intense medical treatment, but usually if caught early enough, survival rate is high. The Zika virus we are hearing so much about now can cause a flu-like illness. More tragic is it is suspected to cause birth defects that cannot be reversed and the development of a paralysis known as Guillain-Barre Syndrome. The Zika virus usually causes such mild symptoms that most people do not even know they have been infected. Symptoms of the Zika illness include fever, sometimes a rash, conjunctivitis and headache.

What we need to know about this virus

It is primarily spread by mosquitos. The two types of mosquitos linked to Zika are usually found in South America. However, they both reside in tropical to subtropical regions and have been found as far north as South Carolina and Georgia in the United States. One of the two types (the Asian Tiger Mosquito) has been found in an even larger region of the United States as far west as Oklahoma and as far north as New York.

Persons identified with the virus in the United States thus far have all traveled to areas where these mosquitos are known to routinely live.

Zika virus is rarely spread from person to person. It is commonly spread when a female mosquito bites an infected person then bites the next person, thus transferring the virus. There have been two cases documented as being sexually transmitted. The virus has been identified in saliva and urine. Scientist will not say it is impossible to spread the virus through saliva but say it is highly unlikely. They do not yet know how long the virus survives in the human body once it is contracted. It is thought to persist for about two weeks then will no longer be infectious.

The problem is the virus does not always make people feel sick. Travelers may spread the virus without knowing they are infected. Once it is in the United States, the theory is that other mosquitos may also be able to transmit the virus. It is predicted to spread fast and far. As of Feb. 19, 2016, only one case had been identified in North Carolina. It was found in a person who had traveled to an area outside of the U.S. where Zika is endemic. That person developed flu-like symptoms and reported a travel history suspicious for Zika infection.

The best way to control the virus is to control mosquitos. Here in eastern North Carolina we all know that is very hard to do. Emptying standing water in containers around your house is a very important way to prevent mosquitos. Proper ditch drainage also aides in the prevention of mosquitos.

Since everyone knows the difficulty associated with control of mosquitos, the most appropriate way for individual prevention is to prevent mosquito bites. Use mosquito repellent. Wear long sleeves and long pants. (I know how hard that is during the summer). Avoid areas such as swamps and low lands unless absolutely necessary.

The Zika virus is most dangerous for pregnant women or women planning to become pregnant. The virus has been found in mothers whose babies were born with micocephaly (abnormally small heads). At this time, there is thought to be a link between Zika virus and this birth defect. Persons traveling to countries in South America and other subtropical areas are advised to use condoms during sexual activity for at least two weeks upon their return to the United States.

Currently there is no quick test to detect the virus. The North Carolina State Laboratory is capable of testing for the virus; results may take weeks to be reported. There are no antiviral treatments. Antibiotics are not effective against viruses. A Canadian scientist is working with a vaccine developer and is predicting a Zika vaccine before the end of the year. The vaccine may be ready for human testing as early as August of 2016. If successful, the vaccine could be available for use in a public health emergency situation as early as October 2016. The United States is also working on a vaccine but is months behind the Canadian trials.

This year, let’s be extra vigilant in our efforts to prevent mosquitos and their aggravating bites.

Billie Whitfield, RN, CIC, is the infection control and prevention nurse at Vidant Beaufort Hospital and can be reached at 252-975-4186.