RIDGEWOOD, N.J. -- Not since the swine flu outbreak in 2009 has a disease garnered more international intrigue than the recent spread of the mysterious Zika virus through Central and South America. Is the greater New York area next in the disease's crosshairs? Valley Hospital Infectious Disease specialist Dr. Neil Gaffin says most of us need not worry.
"For the majority of people, the Zika virus will be of very little risk," he said. "However, there is a concern for pregnant women; on Feb. 1, the World Health Organization declared this infection a public health emergency because of mounting evidence suggesting an association with serious congenital abnormalities."
Literally meaning ‘overgrown’, Zika was first discovered in Africa in the 1950s while researchers were studying yellow fever. Since then, the disease has been contained predominantly in Africa and Southeast Asia, but most recently has taken hold in South and Central America as well as U.S. territories. The virus is transmitted one of four ways, Dr. Gaffin says. The first, and most common, is through the bite of an infected mosquito, the same variety which is also responsible for transmitting related viruses such as Dengue and Chikungunya. However, it can also be spread through sexual contact, blood transfusion, or from a mother to her unborn child.
While there is no cure for the disease, the majority of patients are unaware of their infection. "Most people are asymptomatic, which means they don’t feel any side effects as their body fights," said Dr. Gaffin. Those who do experience side effects from the disease will feel aches and pains, a rash, and perhaps a headache. On average, the disease lasts for roughly a week and can be fought off with fluids, rest and moderate pain killers.
'Is Zika coming to the United States?' many wonder. The answer, most likely is yes, says Dr. Gaffin. "Although we have not yet started seeing local transmission within the country, it is believed that initial local outbreaks will occur within the south and southeast," he said. "Widespread outbreaks are felt to be unlikely."
As the weather gets warmer and mosquitos begin to hatch, Dr. Gaffin recommends following simple guidelines for reducing the chance of contact. "Avoid common mosquito areas, use insect repellent, wear long sleeves long sleeves and remove any stagnant water," he advises.
As for any illness, if you are experiencing Zika-like symptoms consult your physician for proper diagnosis. Pregnant or women who have traveled to or reside in areas with ongoing Zika virus transmission should speak to their doctors, even if they have no symptoms of illness.