VCU Health infectious disease expert answers Zika questions in Facebook Live chat

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A mosquito bites.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/James Gathany

The Olympic Games kick off in Rio de Janeiro on Friday and, while the ensuing 16 days will center on athletic events, the games’ location also renews worldwide concern about Zika virus. The World Health Organization says there is “very low risk” of the games spreading the virus, but, as the home to the most recent outbreak, Brazil remains a hotbed for questions related to the disease.

More locally, Florida health officials confirmed last week that individuals had been infected with the virus by local mosquitoes, marking the first known cases of the virus being transmitted by mosquitoes in the continental United States.

Categorized in the same family of viruses as dengue, Zika causes no more than mild discomfort in most people, but the disease can be devastating for pregnant women. Zika causes severe birth defects including microcephaly, a syndrome that causes children to be born with unusually small heads. A small head can cause serious developmental issues and sometimes death.

Gonzalo Bearman, M.D.
Gonzalo Bearman, M.D.

As an academic medical center with a staff that includes experts in infectious disease, infection control and epidemiology, VCU Health is committed to serving as a reliable source of information for those who want to learn more about Zika virus. Gonzalo Bearman, M.D., chairman of infectious diseases at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine and hospital epidemiologist at VCU Medical Center, has been monitoring the rise of the virus. On Aug. 3, VCU Health hosted a Facebook Live interview with Bearman during which he answered questions related to the disease and addressed how VCU Health is equipped to confront it.

Below are Bearman’s replies to some of the questions raised during the interview:


Can you briefly explain what Zika virus is?

Zika virus is a viral infection that is generally very mild. Eighty percent of those infected with the virus have no symptoms. Historically it has been found in Africa, but cases have developed in Brazil and up through South and Central America. The concern for Zika virus is primarily for pregnant women because it can have an impact on the fetus.


What are symptoms of the Zika virus?

Symptoms are a mild fever, some joint pain, a rash and redness of the eyes.


Why is the disease particularly dangerous for pregnant women?

The disease causes severe birth defects including microcephaly, a syndrome that causes children to be born with unusually small heads. A small head can cause severe developmental issues and sometimes death. Other problems have been detected among fetuses and infants infected with Zika virus before birth, such as defects of the eye, hearing deficits and impaired growth. There have also been increased reports of Guillain-Barré syndrome, an uncommon sickness of the nervous system, in areas affected by Zika.


How long do symptoms last?

The clinical illness usually lasts for two-to-seven days and patients with prior confirmed infections are not believed to be at risk with pregnancy after symptoms have ceased.


How is Zika detected in an infected person?

Diagnosis of Zika is based on a person’s recent travel history, symptoms and test results. A blood or urine test can confirm a Zika infection. All testing here has to be coordinated through the Virginia Department of Health.


How is the disease contracted?

The disease is primarily spread through the bite of an infected mosquito, and that mosquito has to pick it up from an infected person. Zika can also be sexually transmitted and it can be spread from a pregnant woman to her fetus.

Gonzalo Bearman, M.D., chairman of infectious diseases at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine and hospital epidemiologist at VCU Medical Center, answers questions about the Zika virus.

How is VCU Health prepared to treat the disease if we start seeing cases here?

There is no treatment for Zika virus, so we are here to provide consultations related to it and to assist in diagnosing the disease if a patient has the travel history and the clinical symptoms that are potentially suggestive of Zika.


What would VCU do if a patient who was being treated here tested positive for Zika virus?

We would give the patient supportive care and give them medications to make them more comfortable.


What is the likelihood of Zika virus spreading to Central Virginia?

It is possible that Zika virus will spread to Central Virginia. We likely will continue to see cases in Virginia that are imported from tropical and subtropical areas in Latin America and the Caribbean. Nevertheless, transmission could occur in Virginia if an imported infection comes into contact with local mosquitos. This could lead to transmission to others via the mosquito. Sexual transmission is also possible, yet of low frequency.


What is the best way to control the spread of the disease?

The best way to control the spread of Zika virus anywhere is to stop the breeding of mosquitos: tip outdoor containers that have standing water; discard old tires, drums, bottles, cans, pots and pans outside that are not being used; protect boats and vehicles from rain with tarps that do not accumulate water. People can also protect themselves by wearing long-sleeved clothing and using mosquito repellent. Sexual transmission of Zika can be prevented by using condoms or abstaining from sex if you have been exposed to the virus or if you have been diagnosed with Zika virus infection. Local health authorities can aid in control of the disease by embarking on mosquito-reduction practices.


Zika virus is a credible public health threat and should be taken seriously. 

How serious is the Zika virus?

Zika virus is a credible public health threat and should be taken seriously. Pregnant women should not travel to any area with Zika virus. Women trying to get pregnant should talk to their doctors before traveling or before their male partner travels to a Zika endemic area. Women who wish to delay or avoid pregnancy should consistently use birth control. Those traveling to areas with Zika should take steps during and after travel to prevent mosquito bites and sexual transmission of the disease.

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