Zika virus is a mosquito-borne infection. It can be transmitted to humans if they are bitten by infected mosquitoes, commonly the Aedes mosquito, which is generally active during daytime hours. There is also evidence that Zika can be spread through unprotected sexual intercourse with an infected person. The virus is not linked to malaria.
There is no cure for the Zika virus, however many people who contract it do not show symptoms, and will recover without intervention. This epidemic continues to dominate the headlines because there is an established risk to women who have Zika during pregnancy. The virus is specifically linked to microcephaly in babies, meaning a baby born with an abnormally small head because the brain has not developed properly.
Signs and symptoms
If a Zika patient does show symptoms they are likely to be mild and can last for up to seven days. Symptoms may include:
- mild fever
- joint pain, (particularly in the hands and feet)
- skin rash
- conjunctivitis or pain in the eyes
- muscle pain
Diagnosis and treatment
The Zika virus is diagnosed with a blood test, and remains incurable. Any fever and discomfort can be treated in the same way as many common viral infections with paracetamol, although ibuprofen and aspirin should be avoided because of a potential risk of excessive bleeding.
The risks of Zika virus in pregnancy
There is an established risk of damage to women who contract Zika at any stage of pregnancy, and the global media is now making us all well aware of microcephaly, what it will look like and what it can mean.
The term microcephaly means a small head – and an underdeveloped brain – which can cause brain-damage in babies. The alarming increase in the number of affected babies born in Brazil has been linked to the rise of the Zika virus.
Microcephaly can cause a child to have seizures, developmental delay, ADHD and delays in motor and speech skills. It is also linked with dwarfism. The effects will vary on a case-by-case basis, and some children with milder forms can go on to lead normal lives. Microcephaly is diagnosed during antenatal scans or on symptoms during the child’s early life.
If you are pregnant and have travelled to any countries affected by the Zika virus, the first step is to talk to your midwife or GP. This is important even if you have not experienced any signs of having had Zika, as many people who contract the virus are not aware of any symptoms. You will be referred for a scan to check your baby’s growth and brain development, and a blood test can be arranged to establish whether or not you have had the virus.
If you are trying to conceive and you have visited a country affected by the Zika outbreak, it is essential to see your GP. If you have experienced Zika symptoms or if a blood test detects the virus, you will be advised to wait at least six months before conception to minimise the risk to the baby.
There is a known risk of sexual transmission of the Zika virus through unprotected intercourse. More research is needed here, although the risk is thought to be low. However, if your partner has travelled to an affected region it is advisable to use a condom for at least one month after his return if he has no symptoms or for six months if he does have symptoms or if he is known to have contracted the virus.
Zika virus is spreading fast, and we do not yet know enough about it – and its potential for affecting the unborn child – to properly assess the full impact of this epidemic. At the time of writing, Zika has been declared an emergency by the World Health Organisation, which means that medical research into the virus and its effects will be expedited. With no effective preventative treatment and no cure, our best defence in the meantime is diligence, by doing everything possible to prevent mosquito bites in affected regions and by using contraception if there is any chance that either we or our partners may have contracted Zika.