Zika virus: Arizona risk is small, but precautions are prudent

Zika Virus
Zika is a threat even in the dry Arizona desert.

News reports have fueled fears about the Zika virus, which has been linked to brain defects in the babies of women who were infected while pregnant. In March, health officials confirmed Arizona’s first case of the virus in a Maricopa County woman. Does this reported transmission warrant alarm?

No, says Dr. Cara Christ, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services. Christ, who started her public-health career as an infectious-disease epidemiologist, is the mother of three children. She urges caution—but not panic—as families head into summer travel and outdoor activities.

“More infections are likely as people travel to and from areas where the disease is currently being transmitted,” Christ says. “But the risk of this virus spreading throughout Arizona is very low.”

What is Zika, and how does it spread?

“Zika is a virus primarily transmitted by the bite of an infected mosquito,” Christ says. It also spreads through sexual contact, from a mother to a child during pregnancy or birth and, in rare cases, through blood transfusions. Not all mosquitoes, however, are capable of carrying the Zika virus.

What are the symptoms?

“Only about one in five people infected with Zika will feel sick,” Christ says.  Symptoms start about seven days after being bitten by an infected mosquito and include fever, rash, joint pain and red or swollen eyes. For most people, Zika is mild. Symptoms last up to a week.

What are the concerns for pregnant women?

“Zika can be spread from a pregnant woman to her fetus and is linked to a serious birth defect of the brain called microcephaly,” Christ says. She recommends pregnant women avoid traveling to areas where Zika is present (which include Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and parts of South America), take steps to prevent mosquito bites and “take measures to prevent getting Zika through sex with an infected male partner.”

Pregnant women who live in or who have recently visited a country with high risk of Zika infection should “visit their health-care provider to discuss whether they should be tested for Zika virus,” Christ says.

What is the risk of Zika spreading in Arizona?

Mosquitos are a threat even in the desert. However, Christ says, “local health and vector-control departments around the state work hard to find mosquitos in populated areas, trap them, figure out whether they are the kinds of mosquitos that can spread illness and test them to see if they are carrying any diseases.” This means the state can respond quickly to any potential threat.

What are some practical steps families can take to minimize mosquito-borne illness?

Christ recommends that families:

  • Wear long sleeves and pants;
  • Use screens in windows;
  • Apply an effective insect repellant, such as DEET.

She cautions parents “to avoid using repellant on children younger than 2 months, but dress them in clothing covering arms and legs.” For kids older than 2 months, it is safe to use repellant according to label instructions, “but make sure not to spray it on hands, eyes, mouth or cut skin,” she says.

Families also can prevent mosquito breeding around homes by “keeping the yard clean, dumping or covering all containers holding standing water and treating pools and ponds with appropriate chemicals.”

More questions? The Arizona Department of Health Services website reports any current Zika cases in the state, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers up-to-date travel advisories and information on the virus.

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