By Jessica Mondani, DO, MPH
Leading experts now predict that the mosquito-borne disease, Zika virus, will arrive in the U.S. this summer and become a constant low-level threat. We should not think of Zika virus as an epidemic wave that will pass over the world and then vanish, but rather as a permanent problem that will wax and wane, as West Nile virus has.
Temperatures are now becoming ideal for the mosquito population growth in the southern part of the United States. This, in combination with the high number of infected returning travelers, is a perfect storm for local transmission.
So what are our options for dealing with this new threat linked to serious birth defects in the infants of infected pregnant women?
The answer is complicated. Right now, the most effective and safest solution is prevention and avoidance: eliminate mosquito breeding areas, wear protective clothing treated with permethrin, use EPA registered insect repellent, stay in places with window and door screens to keep mosquitoes outside, and if possible avoiding places with known Zika virus transmission.
A vaccine would be great for prevention, but safe science takes time and money. This is complicated by the fact that Zika virus has already infected a large population and will continue to infect more in the coming months. Vaccine trials would need to be done on people who have not been previously infected, and uninfected people will only continue to be harder to find. It will likely be years before a vaccine is ready for mass production and distribution.
Antiviral medications may be another alternative. However, like a vaccine, time and research are needed to ensure safety. Purdue University researchers have determined the structure of the Zika virus, which reveals insights critical to the development of effective antiviral treatments and vaccines.
We, as physicians, must educate our patients on what they can do to protect themselves and their families. We should not spread panic, but make sure those at risk, especially pregnant women or women who are trying to become pregnant, take appropriate safety precautions. Please refer to www.CDC.gov for specific recommendations on Zika virus.