For those planning or definitely going south to Mexico, the Caribbean islands, or South America, it’s Zika time of the year. So let’s talk Zika and its possible risks. And let’s also be clear about how the Zika virus can be transmitted between individuals.
The aggressive, black female mosquito, Aedes aegypti, usually referred to as the Yellow Fever mosquito, is currently the culprit inoculating the Zika virus when it bites us, taking a blood meal needed to nourish its eggs. As it takes that meal, it deposits the virus into our blood stream. But there are other means of transmission: oral and vaginal sex are both direct transmitters, direct inoculators. Of course that means that initially someone has had to be bitten and infected by a Zika virus-carrying mosquito. That also suggests that at least one of the individuals engaging in such activity has not developed any outward symptoms of a Zika infection, which brings us to the symptoms Zika can induce.
Both men and non-pregnant women have shown a spectrum of responses, from no symptoms, to the full-blown, that can include nauseating headaches for up to 48 hours; malaise, a fuzzy debilitating feeling; general soreness, followed by a macula-papule rash — small, red, solid, pimple-like elevations spreading across the abdomen, then spreading to arms and legs accompanied with beastly itching. This syndrome, this collection of events occurring together, is unmistakable. But only some 10 to 20 percent of men and women display this range of symptoms. It’s the pregnant woman’s infant that’s the recipient of the vision and/or hearing loss and microcephaly.
For those going to Rio for the Olympic games, it’s December in the southern hemisphere, with it cool to colder climate, which means few if any mosquitoes. That’s a plus.
Furthermore, this offensive Zika-carrying insect is expected to reach Florida by the middle to end of July. How long it will take to make its way north is up for grabs at the moment: mid-August is not an unreasonable estimate.
Horrific events could unfold if our northern house mosquito, the nondescript, brownish insect, known as Culex pipens, which we hear buzzing about us at night — that’s a key; she’s a night biter — would pick up the virus from a Zika-infected individual and pass it on. That would be our worst nightmare.
Consequently, primary prevention must be no standing water anywhere for the female to lay her eggs. Vigilance dictates upending anything that can hold water. Therein lies our security.
This scenario should not be on the agenda this summer, unless climate change extends our summer into October and November. Only time will tell.
Melvin A. Benarde, Ph.D.
Benarde is a Princeton based author and retired microbiologist and epidemiologist and a World Health Organization fellow.