The Zika Virus: What Travel Nurses Need to Know

Clinical Corner

The Zika Virus: What Travel Nurses Need to Know
Lots of folks are buzzing about the Zika virus, but it’s important to separate fact from fiction and theory as the threat evolves.
By Chris Vinton, Medical Solutions Quality Assurance Specialist

There’s been a lot of buzz about the Zika virus lately and right now there is a ton of sensationalized information out there. Because of this, I wanted to share some facts straight from the CDC and the WHO pages and statements about the virus with Medical Solutions Travelers, to help you be the most well-informed nurses wherever you may be located!

The Zika virus is currently found in Mexico, South and Central America, and the southern Caribbean Islands. The virus is spread primarily by mosquito bites, however it can also spread through blood transfusion and as an STD. Additionally, Zika can spread from mother to fetus and possibly through breastfeeding. Birth defects — specifically microcephaly (incomplete fetal brain development) — have skyrocketed in countries that are experiencing a Zika virus outbreak. The Zika virus has not yet been confirmed as causing birth defects but it very, very likely is. In the countries experiencing an outbreak, many infants with microcephaly have been found infected with Zika. The CDC states that Zika will not affect future pregnancies and will only effect fetuses if the mother gets Zika while currently pregnant. The Zika virus might cause Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) as well, a rare disorder that causes muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis. Brazil has seen a sudden rise people affected by GBS but it is not currently confirmed that Zika will make a person more susceptible to GBS.

As of now, the Zika virus has only been brought to the continental United States by people who have been infected overseas and there have been no locally acquired cases. The CDC finds the Gulf States, including Florida, to be at risk for Zika-spreading mosquitos. Puerto Rico has had several confirmed locally acquired cases.

Common symptoms of the Zika virus include fever, rash, joint pain, muscle pain, headache, and/or conjunctivitis. About 1 in 5 infected people will become ill with symptoms typically lasting several days to a week. Hospitalization for the Zika virus is uncommon and, to date, there have been no confirmed deaths from Zika. There are no vaccines or medications available for Zika.

If you happen to be infected, the treatment for Zika is rest and fluids. Take medicine such as acetaminophen to reduce fever and pain but do not take aspirin until dengue (another virus spread by mosquitos that causes internal hemorrhaging) can be ruled out. There are currently no vaccines to prevent Zika, nor specific medicine to treat Zika.

So how does this affect you as a nurse? First, if you or anyone you know has recently traveled to any of the above-mentioned locations and are feeling the symptoms of Zika, they should see a primary care physician. The tropics have all sorts of not-so-lovely diseases, viruses, and parasites and Zika’s symptoms are common to many other ailments. If you are infected with Zika, avoid being bitten by mosquitos, as the mosquitos will become infected and spread Zika. If you are taking care of a patient that has the Zika virus, be sure you are taking the necessary precautions and wearing your PPE.

It’s currently unknown what the ultimate human costs and spread of the Zika virus will be. Zika originates from Africa and was considered a benign disease until recently. It became a public health concern when it spread quickly in the densely populated areas of South America. Most people that become infected generally experience no symptoms and those who do face very minor symptoms. There have been no confirmed deaths in adults from Zika. What is most concerning about Zika is the effect it can have on pregnant women and fetuses.

If you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant, the CDC and the WHO advise against travel to affected areas during the Zika outbreak. If you are planning to travel to any of these areas in the near future, click here for information from the CDC on the current situation in each county and how to prevent Zika.

For more information about Zika, please click the following links to visit the CDC’s Zika info page or the WHO’s Zika fact sheet.
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