First it was West Nile, then Ebola, and now Zika. Third world viruses are infecting our first world life. Doctors and government health officials expect world travelers to bring more cases in the United States, especially with the Olympics this summer in Brazil. Even worse, they think Zika-carrying mosquitoes could fly north into the states this summer. That’s why we need to know about Zika and how to prevent it.
There is no more worrisome a patient population than pregnant women. Add the threat of severe birth defects, and the level of fear skyrockets. I have a two year old, so being pregnant isn’t a far too distant memory, and I hope to someday give my daughter a sibling. I work in healthcare, and as soon as I started seeing headlines about Zika and its link to thousands of cases of microcephaly in Brazil, I paid attention and began devouring pertinent information from credible sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. It seemed like almost overnight, the virus caught the world’s attention by surprise.
As a former news reporter in the summer of 2012, I covered West Nile every day for three months. I remember a young lawyer who’d been playing outside with his son when he was bitten on the ankle by an Aedes mosquito. Days later, he was paralyzed. He has spent years regaining his strength and his life. Despite the fatalities and neuroinvasive cases I saw, I never feared West Nile like I do Zika.
Last week, Dallas County Health and Human Services announced the first confirmed case of sexually-transmitted Zika here in Dallas. The first patient contracted it from a man who had recently traveled to Venezuela where there are infected mosquitoes. Both have since fully recovered. This week, a third patient was confirmed; this time, a woman who traveled to Honduras. The Health Department also revealed it has more specimens to test and will be opening its own testing lab to serve 12 counties in the coming weeks.
Methodist Health System OBGYNs have been flooded with calls from concerned pregnant patients asking about insect repellant, doctors’ notes, and travel restrictions. Major airlines are now granting refunds to passengers with flight plans to Zika-infected areas provided they have a doctors’ note. As a precaution, we canceled a trip to Turks and Caicos for a wedding in May. Another bridesmaid, who is in her third trimester, also pulled the plug on her trip. While there are no confirmed cases there now, by May, there likely will be, and we don’t want to chance any of us getting infected. My husband has to travel to Argentina in May for work, and I am scared of him getting bitten. I will be sending him with an arsenal of non-travel sized DEET to apply three times a day to his clothing.
Zika is still a relatively new virus, only discovered in Africa in 1947, and there is not nearly the evidence and clinical study on it as other mosquito-borne viruses like West Nile because there haven’t been enough cases to study… until now. With more than 4,000 cases in Brazil alone, the link to microcephaly was only made in the last few months by doctors there, but it has not been officially confirmed. Still, national governments in South and Central America are making an unheard-of plea urging women of child-bearing age NOT to get pregnant. That is something women in the United States cannot fathom.
I’ve listened to our infectious disease specialists give a dozen media interviews over the past two weeks, each time I learn a new facet of this virus. Doctors are consuming new information from experts and journals every day trying to keep their patients informed. The Aedes mosquito will get to Texas; we just don’t know when. Cities are already getting traps and insecticide ready, and we need to all stay informed and vigilant. That’s why Methodist Health System is hosting a Zika forum next Thursday, Feb. 18 at 6 p.m. in the lobby of Methodist Richardson Medical Center. We’ve assembled a panel of OBGYNs and infectious disease specialists to discuss the latest findings and answer questions. Pregnant or not, we welcome anyone who wants to know more about the virus and how to protect herself and her family.
Seating is limited, so please RSVP at https://answers2zika.eventbrite.com.