What you need to know about the Zika virus

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By Holly Brenza, Advocate Health Care News Service

With every passing day, more information presents about the Zika virus, a disease characterized by symptoms including fever, joint pain, rash and pink eye.

Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) offered up facts about the current outbreak, and on Monday, the organization declared an international public health emergency.

There have been at least 32 confirmed cases across the United States and in Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and Finland (all of which were acquired in the epidemic area).

Last week, CBS Chicago reported that a man in Illinois who traveled to South America is now the third case that contracted Zika virus in the state.

The virus is transmitted through mosquito bites, but officials are also considering if the virus can be sexually transmitted by men who are also infected.

“The virus has been found in men’s semen, but whether or not it is sexually transmitted is not known at this time,” says Dr. Stephen Sokalski, an infectious disease specialist at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Ill.

While Dr. Sokalski says that further studies need to be conducted in order to clarify the possible route of transmission, he explains that there is a major precaution men need to take in order to help prevent the spread of the virus.

“If a male has developed an illness and has then tested positive for Zika, I would advise that he avoids unprotected sex until he has been shown to have recovered from the virus,” Dr. Sokalski suggests.

He explains that both men and women alike may have complications from the virus.

“Men are more likely than women to develop the Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a neurological disorder that can lead to total paralysis from the Zika virus,” Dr. Sokalski adds.

Additionally, women who are pregnant or may become pregnant are being urged to avoid travel to infected areas, because the virus can lead to birth defects such as brain damage and microcephaly, a condition in which an infant’s head is abnormally small.

But symptoms of the Zika virus may not even become apparent.

According to Dr. Sokalski, only 20 percent of those infected with the Zika virus develop symptoms, which are mild and may last up to one week.

“This is not new science or new policy. Now we’ve got an outbreak on our hands, and although the symptoms of Zika itself are absent to mild for most, for some there can be devastating consequences to infection,” says Dr. Michael Osterholm, public health scientist and director of the Center of Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, in a statement.

Dr. Sokalski explains that there are other mosquito-borne diseases with similar symptoms—Chickungunya and Dengue Fever. For all three cases, avoiding mosquito bites and being around the infected geographical areas is recommended.

“We do not have a vaccine for Zika yet. The only thing we can do is fight the mosquito,” Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff told reporters.

Last week, WHO estimated as many as four million people in the Americas may become infected, but vaccine developers have suggested that any sort of public vaccine wouldn’t be available for months—or even years.

Although hospitalization and fatalities are rare, the total implications of Zika remain unknown.

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