When I first heard about a newer mosquito-borne infection in South America, similar to Dengue fever, but with the possibility of causing birth defects, I was not too worried. I thought the news reports were overblown, and that the actual danger here in the U.S. was minimal. I was wrong. Now even the normally conservative Center for Disease Control and Prevention claims that Zika is “scarier than we initially thought.”
The Zika virus is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, endemic in Brazil and other parts of South American, but also common in the southern United States. It should be noted that sexual interaction can also spread the virus.So far, the disease has only appeared in those patients who have visited affected areas:
With global infection rates of the Zika virus increasing rapidly, physicians should be prepared to handle possible cases of the virus and answer patients’ questions. No locally acquired vector-borne Zika virus cases have been reported in the continental United States, but cases have been confirmed in returning travelers.
A recent CDC report has confirmed that Zika can definitely cause microcephaly. This leads to abnormally small brains in babies born of women infected with Zika during the first trimester of pregnancy. It is not yet known what percentage of infected women’s babies actually have this problem, or what other abnormalities may appear. It is entirely possible that other problems may arise with Zika infection, or that it may even lead to miscarriages.
This is all the more worrisome because symptoms of Zika infection are often mild, and many infected subjects are asymptomatic. The CDC and World Health Organization have both issued recommendations that women in affected areas should use birth control or avoid sexual intimacy at this time.
In predominantly-Catholic South American countries, such as Peru, Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela, abortion is illegal. But fear of Zika-infected women having babies with birth defects has led many to demand termination of their pregnancies. The Zika crisis may be used as a wedge to loosen abortion restrictions in the near future.