Dr Manny's Notes

Zika virus a renewed threat

Manny Alvarez

Last year, a combination of media coverage and scary outbreaks made Zika the most talked about disease of the year. Then, the winter season brought holiday cheer and diminished mosquito populations, and the public simply forgot about the health threat. However, people need to stay cautious about Zika this summer, especially if travelling to regions known for the virus.

In 2016, the United States saw over 5,000 cases of Zika and thousands more in American territories. People mainly contracted the virus by travelling abroad, but they unfortunately brought it back with them. In both Florida and Texas, several areas revealed cases of locally acquired infection, meaning that the Zika virus had made its way into the mosquito population.

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This year, health officials have not yet seen a major outbreak. That fact does not mean that Zika has left the country, though. Actually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 125 cases have been found in the states and just over 500 in the territories to date.

While these cases haven’t exactly hit outbreak numbers, they do show the virus’s presence. If mosquitoes contract it from any of these cases, Zika has the potential to spread.

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Pregnancy Risk

When a person gets the Zika virus, he often has little idea that he has the disease at all. It doesn’t always come with concerning symptoms and sometimes presents none.

When the virus does show up, a person may get a fever, rash, red eyes, headache, neck or other body pain. Since these symptoms are so generic, a person can easily mistake them for the flu. Other than these symptoms, the Zika virus does little harm to a healthy adult.

However, pregnant women do face a higher risk that the virus could affect their babies at birth. Particularly, it causes increased cases of microcephaly. So far, researchers have reported birth defects in 5 percent of infected pregnancies.

For Zika-related microcephaly, its rate of incidence has increased 20–30 times the norm for this defect. Perhaps the US should count its blessings, though, because other countries battling Zika have actually seen a much higher rate for birth defects.

In addition, researchers are still learning what other developmental problems might occur years after a Zika-infected birth. To guard against this disease, pregnant women should travel with caution, avoiding areas with recent cases—both in the US and in other countries.

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Testing Troubles

While the public may have somewhat forgotten about the Zika virus, health professionals and researchers have not. Unfortunately, the White House proposed funding cuts by the billions to the CDC and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. These cuts could mean a halt in expanding Zika research and limitations in testing.

Even without the funding cuts, the Zika virus poses several problems for health experts. As mentioned before, its lack of awareness and minor symptoms has likely resulted in many cases passing by unaware. To accurately monitor Zika, the US would need mass testing, a nearly impossible solution.

Then, in the event that an outbreak does occur, many health organizations may not have the staffing and equipment necessary. Hundreds or thousands of tests would need to go through labs, and state facilities would likely not be able to handle such a load. In turn, people would not get the quick diagnosis that the virus warrants to keep it from spreading.

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On a positive note, researchers have developed several vaccines that are in the testing stages. One has even moved on to the testing Phase 2. Despite the myriad of obstacles to active monitoring and testing, experts are making progress and working to protect the United States from an epidemic. In the meantime, people should use bug repellant when going outdoors and stay cautious during summer travel.

While the Zika virus may have disappeared from the public eye, it still holds risk in the US. People may not be identifying it when infected, putting others in danger of getting the virus. Of those at risk, pregnant women and their babies should have the greatest concern. This summer, avoid travelling to places affected by Zika and use caution when going outside.

This article first appeared on AskDrManny.com.

Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's senior managing health editor. He also serves as chairman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology and reproductive science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. For more information on Dr. Manny's work, visit AskDrManny.com.