Zika virus is the focus of a great deal of attention in the media and from researchers around the world. While the virus is a concern for women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant in the near future, there are also several other mosquito-borne illnesses that you should also be aware of. We talked with David S. Perlin, Ph.D., a member of the PinnacleCare Medical Advisory Board and executive director and professor at the Public Health Research Institute (PHRI), a well-known biomedical research organization and center of excellence specializing in infectious diseases at the New Jersey Medical School, Rutgers University, to learn what steps you should take to protect your family against mosquito-borne illnesses while traveling this spring.
Q: What is Zika virus?
Dr. David Perlin (DP): Zika virus is an emerging mosquito-borne virus that was first identified in East Africa almost 70 years ago. It is transmitted by the Aedes mosquitoes, which transmit other vector-borne viral diseases across tropical and subtropical regions around the world.
Q: Who faces the greatest health risks from Zika virus?
DP: Currently, we think the biggest risk is for pregnant women. Researchers have found a troublesome association between infection with the Zika virus and a condition called microcephaly, which causes babies to have unusually small heads and, in the majority of cases, problems with the development of the brain. We need to do more research to find out if there is a causal link between Zika virus and this abnormality.
For most people, infection with the virus is not a serious health problem. The majority of people don’t experience any symptoms. About one in five has mild flu-like symptoms—fever, rash, joint pain, red eyes. If you’re not a pregnant woman or a women planning to become pregnant in the near future, the virus doesn’t pose much of a health threat.
While most Zika virus infections are spread by mosquitoes, there have been a few cases that suggest that men infected with the virus can pass it to their partner through sex, so if you and your partner have been to regions where the disease is endemic and you’re pregnant or trying to become pregnant, you should consider using condoms until we know more about the potential for sexual transmission of this virus.
Q: What other mosquito-borne illnesses should people be aware of?
DP: Any time you travel to an area where there are a great number of mosquito-borne illnesses, you face some level of risk. There have recently been outbreaks of dengue in Hawaii and chikungunya in Mexico, South and Central America, the Pacific Islands, and the Caribbean. Other mosquito-borne illnesses that can cause serious health problems include malaria and Japanese encephalitis.
Q: How can people protect themselves against mosquito-borne illnesses?
DP: While there is a vaccine for Japanese encephalitis and preventive medications that you can take for malaria, there is currently no vaccine or anti-viral to prevent or treat dengue, Zika virus, or chikungunya. The most important thing to do is to take all steps available to prevent being bitten by a mosquito when you’re traveling in regions where these diseases occur. That means using insect repellants that are effective against mosquitoes, using barrier protection by wearing clothes that cover your arms, legs, and neck, and staying in hotels or homes with window screens and air conditioning. If you’re in a rural region where you’re likely to be exposed to mosquitoes inside your hotel, sleep under a good quality mosquito net.
It’s also important for people to remember that even if they are bitten by a mosquito, it doesn’t mean they’ll be infected with a mosquito-borne illness. Each person needs to assess the level of risk he or she is comfortable with while traveling. Talk with your doctor or a travel medicine specialist and learn about the health issues at your destination so you can build a strategy to mitigate your risk and protect your health.