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Zika Myths go Viral

It was Mark Twain who quipped that “a lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”  Maybe lie is a bit too strong a word for some of the uncertain information about Zika virus that is spreading online. Claims that the virus is being transmitted by, or linked to, genetically modified mosquitoes released in Brazil in 2012 have been widely publicized. But other organizations committed to separating truth and fiction—like snopes.com—have debunked the theory.

As a pharmacist working very closely with a local infectious disease and travel immunization clinic, I appreciate the public concern for good information about Zika virus. Those considering travel to areas of concern (over 20 countries identified, including Brazil and Mexico), should be aware of the risks involved and what measures they can take to prevent infection. Currently no vaccine exists to prevent illness associated with Zika virus.

By way of review, for those who might have missed it, Zika virus is spread almost exclusively from being bitten by an infected mosquito. As such, it falls into the category of “mosquito-borne diseases” like malaria or yellow fever. Most adults infected from Zika will have few or mild symptoms. Some (maybe 1 in 5 according to experts) will develop a rash, fever or joint pain. These symptoms typically resolve with rest, fluids and acetaminophen. No cause for alarm here.

The bigger concern is the danger for pregnant women. A strong link has been identified between Zika infection and an often fatal developmental disorder in babies known as microcephaly. Miscarriages have also been reported. While making a positive connection between Zika and these fetal concerns requires time and testing, recently released microbiological studies of the brain tissue of babies who died have made the link far more likely.

The global Zika virus threat is real and concern over the spread of this virus is mounting. The World Health Organization (WHO) identified this as a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” (PHEIC), a designation for diseases only used three times before. Likewise, the CDC recently elevated their response to Level 1, the highest level of activation to address the spread of this virus.

For us here in the U.S. the concern is primarily focused on travel-risk. To date there have not been any reports of mosquitoes infected with the virus in our country. However, the species of mosquito capable of carrying the virus (Aedes aegypti) does exist in America, particularly along the southern and southeastern U.S. borders. Theoretically, if such a mosquito were to bite an infected individual, it could become a vector for the disease, spreading it to others.

Travel concerns may be even more relevant than usual, given the fact that the summer 2016 Olympics are being held near the virtual epicenter of this disease, Brazil.

Travel precautions focus mostly on preventing mosquito bites, wearing sufficient clothing, and using effective repellants. Products containing DEET, IR3535 and Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus are among those recommended by the CDC and should be used as directed on the package labeling—and never on children less than two months of age. Permethrin-based products should be used only on clothing or other supplies—not on the skin.

Immunization research is currently being conducted by several companies with the hopes of developing a human vaccine, possibly by the end of this year. But such hopes are pretty optimistic given the steps needed to gain FDA approval, produce, and market such a product.

Zika myths are going viral; don’t get bit. I hope this article has provided a few clarifying facts worth spreading.