On Monday, Feb. 1, the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus a public health issue of international concern, a designation it has issued only three times previously. On Wednesday, Gov. Rick Scott directed Florida Surgeon General Dr. John Armstrong to declare a health emergency in Miami-Dade, Lee, Hillsborough and Santa Rosa counties.
In response, a panel of FIU experts in public health, medicine, science and hospitality gathered Wednesday to discuss the disease and its implications for South Florida.
Currently, more questions surround Zika than definitive answers, as time has not yet allowed for long-term studies on all of the effects of the disease. But, in an abundance of caution, here are five things FIU professors want people to know about Zika:
Zika is transmitted through the bite of a daytime-active species of mosquito called Aedes aegypti, which is prevalent in warm, humid climates, such as South Florida.
While no cases of Zika virus infection acquired in the United States have been reported, cases have been reported in the United States of people who contracted the disease while traveling abroad. At least nine of these cases occurred in Florida.
This has the potential to result in transmission of cases in the United States, as Aedes aegyptimosquitos transmit Zika by biting an infected person and then biting an uninfected person.
Twenty-eight countries, including some in South America and the Caribbean, currently experience active transmission of Zika, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. And the WHO estimates that the Zika virus will reach every country in the Western Hemisphere before the year’s end, infecting nearly 4 million people.
Though there are currently no international travel restrictions in place, the CDC issued a travel advisory in January warning pregnant women to avoid travel to those areas where the virus is rapidly spreading.
Last year, more than 1 billion international travelers were logged, according to Carolin Lusby, an assistant professor of tourism, research methods and leadership.
“With so much people flow, there is always risk for diseases to travel around the world,” Lusby said.
2) Cause for concern during pregnancy
The WHO suspects a link between Zika infection during pregnancy and microcephaly in the babies of those infected at birth; the condition results in infants born with abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains.
The cause for concern arose after thousands of cases of microcephaly were reported in Brazil in the last year, an increase of 3,900 percent from the number of cases reported in 2014.
Likewise, there is little definitive information indicating how long the virus persists in the body once contracted, so infectious diseases professor Dr. Aileen Marty suggests waiting two months after recovery from Zika virus infection before trying to become pregnant.
3) No known treatment
“There is no specific treatment for Zika,” Marty said. “It’s still up in the air as to whether any of the existing antivirals would have any effect whatsoever, and whether they would do more harm than good.”
Additionally, no vaccine has yet been developed to prevent the contraction of Zika.
Zika’s symptoms can include rash, joint pains, conjunctivitis (pinkeye) and fever, and tend to subside within a week or two. And in approximately 75 percent of cases, people show no symptoms at all.
Though no treatment for the Zika virus itself exists, its symptoms can be treated by drinking plenty of fluids, resting and taking acetaminophen to reduce pain and fevers.
Health promotion and disease prevention professor Dr. Consuelo Beck-Sagué warned against taking NSAID pain relievers like aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen, however, unless doctors have ruled out the possibility of having hemorrhagic dengue fever, a disease that is similar to Zika.
“Acetaminophen is your friend,” she said.
FIU professors suggest the best ways to prevent contracting Zika are to wear long clothing and use DEET, or other mosquito repellents; and, if possible, to avoid travel to countries with active transmission of Zika if pregnancy is planned, or if the person is already pregnant.
Alternative repellants like oil of lemon eucalyptus might also work. Keep in mind the U.S. Food and Drug Administration counsels that insect repellents containing DEET should not be used in infants under 2 months of age. Oil of lemon eucalyptus products should not be used on children under 3 years of age.