Is Zika still a threat?

HARTFORD -- From the summer of 2015 leading all the way up to the Olympics in Rio in 2016, the Zika virus was a hot news story. Since then, news reports have tapered off, leading us to ponder if this means that there is less to talk about or if it is just being reported less frequently.

The Zika virus is still a problem worldwide with mosquitos capable of transmitting it in Mexico, Central and South America, Central Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia. The number of cases stopped growing rapidly around the world in the second half of 2016 to the present day.

In the United States, 163 cases of Zika have been seen in the United States in 2017, 162 brought in by travelers to endemic areas and one by sexual contact with an infected person. Our tropical US territories haven’t fared as well with 522 cases all thought to be induced directly from local mosquitos. The CDC is watching two at risk states currently, southern Florida and southern Texas because they are in close proximity to countries or territories where Zika is being transmitted and because they have the same type of mosquito that can harbor Zika.

There are two new things to report. First, there was a study assessing a new urine laboratory test for Zika. The test would like a pregnancy test where you would pee on the stick and then get back results in a few minutes instead of a few weeks. This could make it much easier for people traveling to test themselves when they first arrive back.

Secondly, they think they know why Zika causes embryos to die, develop small heads, or have neurological issues. Remember, most everyone getting Zika just get some mild flu-like symptoms for several days, a few adults have gotten paralyisis from Guillen Barre syndrome but that is incredibly rare. It is the unborn embryo that bears the most risk. Zika hijacks the Mushashi-1 protein in the brain to replicate itself. Embryos need this protein to develop normal brains and when it is commandeered by Zika for its own reproduction, the nerves and brain do not develop normally. This is why the risk is greatest in the first and early second trimesters when production and use of Mushashi-1 is greatest and then goes down precipitously from there. About 5 percent of pregnant women contracting Zika deliver babies with neurological damage.

There is no effective treatment but the CDC has a lot of great information on prevention at CDC.gov. Women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant going to any of these tropical areas of the world need to be very careful to avoid mosquito bites. Stay out of damp and wooded areas and if you can’t; wear long sleeves and pants, a mosquito net, and bug repellent. Don’t try to become pregnant while you are away or for 2 months after you return. Men going to those areas need to avoid sexual contact or use barrier protection while they are away and for up to 6 months after they return because Zika can remain in the testicles long after the drug has been eradicated from the rest of the body. If a man and woman go together to one of these areas, they should wait six months because of the risk from male to female transmission.

– Dr. Michael White from the UConn School of Pharmacy