Unless you’ve been living under a rock for most of 2016 (we wouldn’t blame you, it’s been quite the year), you would have heard of Zika. Zika is a virus that is transmitted by the bite of certain mosquito. These mosquitos bite mostly in the day but may also bite at night. The virus can also be transmitted during sex and from a mother to her unborn baby, via the placenta. The virus was actually first discovered in Africa in 1947, but only a few cases have ever been documented prior to 2015.
The symptoms of Zika are minimal, mild and recovery is within a few days. Symptoms include mild fever, joint and muscle pain and headache.
So if the symptoms of Zika are so mild, why is it such a big deal? The biggest issue, is that infection during pregnancy can lead to serious problems for the foetus. These include something called microcephaly and other central nervous system problems. Microcephaly is a condition in which the foetus’ head does not develop at the correct rate and a baby is born with a smaller than normal head and brain. There are usually quite profound neurological problems associated with this and there is no cure. Zika has also been linked as a cause of Guillain-Barré syndrome. This is an autoimmune disorder (i.e the body attacking itself). It affects the nerves of the body, causing weakness. The condition can be quite serious and hospitalization is required until it improves. Symptoms start off as numbness or tingling and can progress to weakness and pain.
The parts of the world that Zika affects include: Central & South America, the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, Oceania and parts of Africa including Cape Verde. The mosquitos carrying the virus do not survive or reproduce in more temperate climates; therefore places such as the UK, Europe and North America are not really at risk. There have however been some cases reported in Florida. The areas affected can change quickly, so visit the link at the bottom of this page to get the latest, most up-to-date information.
Unlike a lot of other illnesses that you can protect yourself from whilst abroad, there is no vaccine against Zika. Advice at the moment is restricted to protecting yourself against being bitten and that pregnant women should avoid travel to high-risk areas. Protection from bites includes: covering up exposed skin as much as possible and using insect repellent on all exposed skin, particularly during mid-morning and late afternoon, which is when the mosquito is most active. There are clothes you can buy that have been treated with mosquito repellent, otherwise the repellent DEET is very effective (pregnant women should use up to 50% concentration only). DEET however, can reduce the effectiveness of sun creams, so make sure you use a high SPF alongside your repellent. You should also avoid becoming pregnant while travelling to high-risk areas and for 8 weeks after returning, or for 6 months if you have been infected. Despite the risk of sexual transmission being low, if your partner has travelled to a high-risk area, you should use a condom for 8 weeks following their return and for 6 months if they have been infected.
Information correct at the time of publishing. For the most up to date advice on Zika, please visit Gov.uk/Zika
As always, if you are concerned, please visit your GP.
This blog is written by friend of Neat, Dr Nick Ambatzis MB BS, MSc (SEM), MRCGP.
Nick is a General Practitioner specialising in Sports and Exercise Medicine. He completed his medical degree at University College London Medical School in 2002. Nick worked for almost ten years as a junior surgeon and spent three years in Trauma & Orthopaedics. He attained a Masters in Sports and Exercise Medicine and subsequently trained as a GP practising in Paddington.
From an early age, Nick has been both a keen cross-country runner and water-polo player, having competed at college level. Nick is also an accomplished ultra-marathon runner, having competed in many cross-country and cross-alpine races, ranging from 50-100 miles. He has also been a Crossfit and Crossfit Endurance coach.