The Zika virus is prompting travel warnings that target pregnant women
Dr. Sanjay Gupta answers people's concerns about the virus in a Facebook chat
It's not been proven, but a connection between the virus and microcephaly is suspected
Editor’s Note: Do you have any questions about the Zika virus? Tweet them with #ZikaQuestions or leave them in the comments on this Facebook post, and we’ll put them to our health team and other experts.
The Zika virus is now active in more than 20 countries, prompting worldwide concern and travel warnings targeting pregnant women.
But before getting too alarmed, it’s important to know the facts. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, has been covering the rise of this virus. He went on Facebook on Thursday to take questions from people all over the world. Here are highlights from that video chat:
1. What are the early symptoms of the Zika virus?
Most people who get infected with the Zika virus will have either mild or no symptoms at all. If symptoms arise, they can include joint pain, redness of the eyes and fever. What seems to be happening in affected pregnant women, particularly in the early stages of pregnancy, is that the virus has been shown to pass through amniotic fluid and interfere with how the fetus’ brain is developing. A link has not yet been proven, but there’s a high degree of suspicion of a connection between the virus and microcephaly.
2. What is microcephaly?
It’s a disorder in which the brain and skull don’t develop as well and as a result are too small. It’s a serious condition and can cause developmental and intellectual impairment. More than 50 children have died because of it in Brazil.
3. How serious is the Zika virus?
For those who aren’t pregnant, most will either have no symptoms or mild ones, and it’s not serious at all. Eighty percent of those affected never know they have the disease. In fact, what typically happens is that once you get it, you become immune. You are essentially now vaccinated against the virus, because your body has built up antibodies and the next time will fight it. However, there has also been an association with the Zika virus and Guillain-Barre syndrome, an inflammatory syndrome of the central nervous system. It occurs with bad viral infections, sometimes the flu. But again, most people really have no problems at all.
4. How long does it stay in the bloodstream?
It appears not to stay too long. The virus is usually gone from the body in five to seven days. The only way to tell if you have antibodies. There is no evidence to suggest it would lie dormant and pop up again. If you get it, you likely won’t know, will have mild symptoms and then will be immunized.
5. Is there a cure or vaccine in development?
There’s no vaccine yet. A clinical trial is expected to start this year, but it will take some time – a few years from now is likely the best scenario.
6. What steps are the United States and other countries taking to fight the virus’ spread?
It’s spreading quickly in South America, Central America and other countries. These countries have never had this virus before. Our bodies are constantly exposed to things and build up natural immunity. Because we don’t have any natural immunity, that’s part of the reason this is circulating so quickly. In terms of staving off the spread, it’s really about the mosquitoes. The type of mosquito that carries the virus is a daytime mosquito, so bed nets won’t stop the Zika virus from spreading. You should protect yourself from mosquitoes by using insect repellent, wearing appropriate clothing and staying indoors as much as possible. People who live in societies with screens on windows and air-conditioned buildings will see less of a spread, as compared with heavily urbanized areas that don’t have some of those amenities.
7. Why is it spreading so much in Brazil?
Brazil is getting a lot of attention because the country has seen a significant increase in microcephaly. Previously, there may have been only 140 cases the whole year. In Brazil, there were 4,200 cases in just a few months, and 51 children have died. But it’s spreading in many different countries where people are in close quarters, lots of mosquitoes are more present, and where there is a lack of screens on windows, air conditioning in buildings and insect repellent.
8. Should countries tell women not to get pregnant?
Especially in initial stages, there’s all sort of reactionary advice that comes out. After a while, it often changes. In El Salvador, they told women not to get pregnant for two years, an arbitrary number. In Brazil, they also told women to delay pregnancy. I asked the principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention if the CDC agrees about that advice and would say the same if it were really spreading in the United States. The answer was no. It’s really about figuring out how to prevent women who are pregnant from getting it.
9. What do you say to pregnant women who are thinking about taking a vacation to an affected country?
Unless you have to be there, don’t go if you are pregnant or thinking of getting pregnant. That’s what the CDC and other health organizations are saying. There is still more information coming out, and we will eventually know more. But pregnant women from the U.S. are being advised not to go to countries where the Zika virus is spreading if they don’t have to.