The latest mosquito-borne disease to cause concern in the medical world is the Zika virus. Although the first cases of Zika in humans were discovered in Uganda and Tanzania in 1952, an outbreak in Brazil and Colombia in 2015 made national news in the U.S. So just how prevalent is Zika, how does it spread and what harm can it cause? Just the facts: what you need to know about Zika Zika has been called an emerging virus: According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “from 1 January 2007 to 6 April 2016, Zika virus transmission was documented in a total of 62 countries and territories.” WHO has declared the virus and associated birth defects an international public health emergency. Spread mainly through mosquito bites, WHO recently stated that six countries (Argentina, Chile, France, Italy, New Zealand and the United States) have now reported locally acquired infection through sexual transmission from an infected man to his partners. Zika can also be spread from mother to child during pregnancy or around the time of delivery. Some cases of transmission through blood transfusions have been reported in Brazil. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), symptoms of the virus are generally mild and include a low fever, skin rash and conjunctivitis—what is commonly known as “pink eye.” These symptoms usually last less than a week. However, some patients are asymptomatic. Zika can be diagnosed in the laboratory by testing serum or plasma to detect virus, viral nucleic acid, or virus-specific immunoglobulin M and neutralizing antibodies. Currently, there is no specific antiviral treatment available for Zika virus disease. Rest, fluids and the use of analgesics and antipyretics are recommended. The CDC is advising health care providers with patients who are complaining or actively displaying symptoms of the Zika virus to ask their patients about their recent travel history. If they suspect the presence of the virus, it should be reported to their state or local health department. Zika in the U.S. The CDC reports that the number of cases in the United States is relatively small right now, at 358 patients (as of April 13, 2016.) Furthermore, all 358 cases were travel-related. Locally acquired Zika cases have been reported in the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa. Estimates put the number of cases in U.S. territories at 471 (as of April 13, 2016.) Authorities are paying particularly close attention to Puerto Rico because of the quick spread of the virus in that territory. It’s important to note, however, that the mosquito that transmits the virus, Aedes aegypti, is present in more U.S. states than previously believed. According to a recent article in TIME, the current state count is 30. As spring turns to summer and humidity rises, the number of states with the Zika-carrying mosquito could increase. Concern for pregnant women and women planning to get pregnant The locus of concern in the medical community is primarily around pregnant women and women who are planning to conceive in the next two months. This is due to the association of the presence of the Zika virus in the mother with a serious birth defect of the brain in the infant called Microcephaly. Just this month, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, announced that “there is no longer any doubt that Zika causes microcephaly.” Microcephaly is a condition where a baby’s head is smaller than normal because the brain has not developed properly during pregnancy. Depending on how severe the birth defect, Microcephaly can cause related problems such as seizures, developmental delays, intellectual disability, problems with movement and balance, feeding problems, and hearing and vision loss. It has also been found that Zika can cause premature births. The CDC reported, “Zika’s damage is likely worst when it hits a fetus in the first trimester of pregnancy, the crucial time in brain development. By the time the baby’s immune system begins to combat the virus, much of the damage has been done.” No vaccine for Zika… yet According to BBC News, a Zika vaccine is in development and could be ready for human trials as early as September. Again the focus of the vaccine is for pregnant women to prevent microcephaly in their infants. So just how worried should you be about the Zika virus? As Zika is a developing story and medical experts are learning new features of the virus that indicate Zika is worse than they originally thought, we recommend vigilance. This includes staying informed and taking precautions in areas where mosquitoes are present by wearing insect repellant containing DEET (diethyltoluamide) or IR 3535 or Icaridin and proper clothing that covers exposed skin, like long pants and long-sleeved shirts. If you are pregnant or plan to become pregnant in the next eight weeks, it’s advisable not to travel to areas where Zika is prevalent. Clean water, sanitation and hygiene are all factors in preventing disease, particularly mosquito-borne viruses like Zika. Proper biomedical waste management, including laboratory waste management and syringe and sharps disposal, are also essential safeguards against the spread of disease. If you have any questions about medical waste regulations in your area, please contact cyntox.