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Q) I am hearing a lot about the Zika virus now that the Brazillian Olympics is just around the corner. What are some of the latest findings?
A) The Zika virus is a disease that is acquired mainly through the bite of an infected specific type (in this case the Aedes aegypti species) of mosquito. Fortunately for us, and our neighbours to our immediate south, this has not happened as of yet within the boundaries of our borders.
However, the disease can also be spread through sexual intercourse with an infected male who has acquired the disease while travelling abroad or it can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus.
The travelling portion of that last sentence is becoming more troubling by the month. Not only has this disease spread throughout South & Central America, but it can also be caught in various countries in south east Asia, the Carribean, Oceania (some of the islands such as Fiji) and Mexico. As well, there are over 700 documented cases in the States that were acquired while travelling. Most experts think it is only a matter of time before the disease is being spread actively within the US and possibly Canada as well.
While our climate is unsuitable for the A aegypti mosquito, there are small swaths of the U.S. where they live in large numbers and there is some mild concern that one of the mosquito species that already resides in Ontario (of which there are currently 67 different types) may also be able to transmit the virus. That being said, even if home grown transmission does eventually occur, experts do not expect there to be anything close to the rapid explosion of the virus in either of our two countries.
For one, our climate keeps the numbers and life spans of our mosquitoes down relative to countries like Brazil and neither of our countries suffer from the abject poverty which leads to a lack of window and door screens and lots of tubs or pools of stagnant water which promotes breeding.
Other new information coming to light is that just how far along a pregnancy is can be vital when it comes to the health of the fetus.
According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, infection with the Zika virus during the third trimester does not seem to be linked to birth defects. This makes some degree of sense as most of the major organs, including the brain, develop mainly during the first trimester.
Other studies are looking at just how the virus exerts its effects on the fetus. It appears that the Zika virus gets into a fetusí developing brain and either kills cells or stops them from growing further. This seems to result in babies being born with not only unusually small heads (called microcephaly) but also significant amount of brain damage.
As far as adults go, people with Zika either have no, or mild symptoms only. These might include such relatively benign ones such as fever, muscle or joint pain, red eyes and headaches that can last several days to a week. Most people donít get sick enough to die or even go to a hospital and once a person has been infected, they are likely to be protected from future Zika infections.
However, there is mounting evidence that Zika may trigger Guillain-Barre syndrome. This is a rare but devastating neurological syndrome that can quickly spread and, in its most severe form, paralyze virtually the entire body. Small studies have suggested that there is an increased risk of triggering this syndrome about a week after the individual has fought off the original Zika virus.
There are also other new studies that are giving widely divergent answers as to how likely a fetus is to catch the infection from an affected mother. One study out of French Polynesia suggested there was only a 1% chance whereas another indicated the number could be as high as 30%.
As for when a vaccine is expected, the short answer is to not hold your breath. There are hopes that small safety studies of one potential vaccine can begin this September, but that would only be the first of many steps needed in order to produce an effective cure.
For now, those who travel to Zika infected countries should tell their doctors who can order the appropriate tests to determine if you have been infected. Remember, many who have been, have no symptoms whatsoever but may be at risk of passing it along to others either via sex or the bite of another mosquito that is capable of transmitting the disease.
For more information about this or any other health care questions, contact the pharmacists at Gordon Pharmasave, Your Health and Wellness Destination.
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Monday, June 27, 2016