As the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro nears, concern for the Zika virus is growing.
On Feb. 1, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Zika a public health emergency. Since July 13, 65 countries and territories have reported evidence of mosquito-borne Zika virus transmission since 2007.
Brazil has reported more Zika outbreaks than any other country, a fact that has affected participation in this year’s Summer Olympics, to be hosted in Rio de Janeiro from Aug. 5-21..
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have issued travel alerts for many Zika-infected countries, including Brazil. Dozens of athletes, present and former, have opted out of attending the Olympics for fear of contracting the virus.
Health sciences professor Chantel Sloan teaches an infectious disease prevention class at BYU. Sloan is concerned about the Zika virus regarding the summer games and said there is also concern for other mosquito-borne viruses in Brazil, but also believes there can be an overreaction to the threat.
The idea that people are going to an area en mass where there is a mosquito virus isn’t new. For instance, Sloan said plenty of people visit areas where Malaria is a constant threat.
“Students will ask me, ‘I’ve got an internship in Brazil,’ or, ‘I’m going to go serve a mission there — what do I do?’ But if they’re not pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant while there, then it’s OK,” Sloan said.
Sloan said the Zika virus is going to spread because that is what mosquito-borne viruses do. To dissuade fears, the United States Olympic Committee has created an Infectious Disease Advisory Group to study the Zika virus and come up with recommendations to protect U.S. athletes, staff and spectators.
United States Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun said during a press conference, “We will be providing advice on mosquito netting and bug repellent, standing water and clothing, all of those things that can lessen the likelihood that there will be an infection. We’re also going to make sure we have an appropriate level of medical support on the ground.”
Zika is not a new virus, even though many Americans first heard about it only months ago.
The virus was first detected in a monkey in the Zika forest of Uganda in 1947. “Zika has been on our radar for 20 years now,” said Dr. Brandon Webb, an infectious disease specialist with Intermountain Medical Center in Murray. The virus is contracted with a bite, just like any other mosquito-borne virus.
The Zika virus is carried by the Aedes mosquito. This particular mosquito can also carry other viruses, including Yellow Fever, Dengue and Chikungunya.
The female Aedes mosquitoes are the ones that bite, and they usually bite more than one person until they are satiated. After the female mosquito is full, it will lay eggs that can survive up to one year without water. Even a small amount of standing water can allow the eggs to develop into larvae, then into adult mosquitoes.
The first Zika-related death in the continental United States happened in June. An elderly Utah man had Zika symptoms —including rash, fever and conjunctivitis — and also suffered from another health condition, according to the Salt Lake County Health Department.
However, it’s unclear if or how the virus contributed to the death, CDC spokesman Benjamin Haynes told the Associated Press.
Fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis are the most common symptoms of Zika virus. These symptoms can be treated by taking normal pain medications, drinking lots of water and getting plenty of rest.
If an individual has recently traveled to a country where the Zika virus is present, has been bitten by a mosquito and is exhibiting Zika virus symptoms, it is likely they will be diagnosed with the Zika virus. Because about 80 percent of those infected by the virus never show symptoms, diagnosing the virus can be tricky.
Mosquitoes spread the virus by biting and drinking the blood of a human who is already infected with the virus, then biting a non-infected person. It is believed that the virus only stays in human blood for four to seven days after transmission.
However, a bite from an infectious mosquito is not the only way to contract the Zika virus: the virus can also be transmitted sexually. The first sexually transmitted Zika virus diagnosis in the continental Unites States was documented in Texas last January.
The Zika virus does pose a greater concern for women; especially women who are pregnant or become pregnant soon after contracting the disease. If a pregnant woman does contract the virus, there is a good chance that her child will be born with microcephaly, a condition that causes abnormal smallness of the head and is associated with incomplete brain development.
Dr. Matthew Clark, an OB-GYN at Revere Health in Pleasant Grove, said a baby can be infected with the virus if the mother has it.
Another possible effect of the Zika virus is Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Guillain-Barré syndrome is a rare condition that causes temporarily paralysis. Symptoms include tingling in the extremities as well as muscle weakness. Though most patients will recover, the symptoms could last for days, weeks or even months, and the individual will most likely require some hospitalization.
Utah County Health Department Emergency Response Coordinator Ron Tobler said a good percentage of people who get the Zika virus won’t even know they’re ill. He said the reason the world is most concerned about the virus is its association with microcephaly in infants.
“The biggest thing is not to be alarmed by Zika,” Utah Department of Health Epidemiologist Dallin Peterson said. “There are a lot of people that see ‘Zika’ and get afraid, but for the normal American adult … and youth, symptoms are relatively minor.”
Though one strain of the Zika-carrying mosquito, the Aedes aegypti, can only survive in tropical and subtropical regions, the second strain, the Aedes albopictus, can hibernate and thrive in regions with cooler temperatures or higher elevations.
Officials announced Utah’s first diagnosed case of the Zika virus on March 1. The CDC said the child had recently traveled to a country with mosquitos that carry the Zika virus and contracted the virus there.
“It isn’t surprising that Utah has an imported case of Zika virus since so many of our residents travel to and from areas where the disease is currently being transmitted,” Utah State Epidemiologist Allyn Nakashima said in a news release.
Tobler said areas such as Southern California, Miami, Houston and Dallas, Texas are all gearing up tremendously to fight this mosquito, but Utahns shouldn’t worry too much about the virus taking hold in Utah.
Sloan said she is not particularly worried about sustained transmission of the Zika virus in Utah because of how cold it can get. She cited the Dengue virus as an example. Although it has been present longer than the Zika virus, North America doesn’t see it regularly. She also mentioned that the Zika virus and Dengue virus have similar ecologies, so she does not believe that it is going to travel this far north.
At this time, there is no vaccine or antiviral treatment available for individuals who are infected with the Zika virus.
According to a Deseret News article titled “Utah researchers seek ways to identify Zika faster,” Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, chief of the Infectious Disease Division at University Hospital in Salt Lake City said, “They may have vaccines in trials by the end of the year, but no one realistically thinks that there will be a vaccine available for general use any time in the near future.”
In the meantime, scientists will continue to develop techniques for mosquito control.
“One of the coolest (inventions) that has come out in the last few years has been genetically modified mosquitos to actually crash the mosquito population,” Sloan said.
Scientists develop sterile male mosquitos, and when females mate with the genetically modified male mosquitos, none of their offspring survive. The key then is to spread a lot of these sterile mosquitos for it to work.
“They’ve been doing tests on this around the world for the last few years now, and you can eliminate effectively a mosquito population in a couple months,” Sloan said.