Zika: Area Doctors Urge Precautions, Not Panic

By Dick Lindsay and Makayla McGeeney of New England Newspapers

Health officials and physicians in Southern Vermont and the Berkshires are urging precaution over panic against the risk of contracting the Zika virus that is now affecting more Americans — especially pregnant women traveling abroad.

The mosquito-borne disease has been confined to parts of Africa, Asia, Central and South America — especially Brazil, the epicenter of the outbreak — but is showing up in U.S. citizens who have traveled and returned from those overseas locations.

"We have had patients with travel plans to the infected [countries] and advised them against traveling there," said Dr. Andrew Beckwith of Berkshire OB-GYN Associates based in Pittsfield, Mass.

Recently, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported two American women had miscarriages after returning home — the virus found in the placentas, according to CDC officials.

In January, a Hawaiian women who was pregnant while living in Brazil last year, gave birth to a baby with microcephaly, a disease linked to Zika resulting in newborns having exceptional small heads and brain abnormalities.

As of Wednesday, the CDC has confirmed at least 72 cases – several involving pregnant women — in 21 states and Washington D.C., with all but one case contracted overseas.

"I've had people ask me if I were pregnant would I go [to the infected countries] and my answer is 'No,'" said infectious disease specialist Dr. Paula Aucoin of Pittsfield, Mass. "I know people who've changed travel plans because of the disease."

If you're traveling overseas, bring plenty of mosquito repellent, mosquito netting, long-sleeved shirts and long pants to minimize the risk of being bitten, health officials say. Mosquito bites can occur indoors as well as outdoors, but usually during daylight hours.

The Zika virus itself results in no or only mild feverous symptoms, but Aucoin says the disease's serious qualities is what leads to birth defects and the neurological disorder Guillian-Barre Syndrome, a life-threatening rapid onset of muscle weakness.

Until two years ago, the Zika virus, first detected in the 1950s, occurred within a narrow region along the equator from Africa to Asia, transmitted by daytime-active Aedes mosquitoes that have gradually spread from its subtropical habitats.

By 2014, the virus spread to the South Pacific and last year to Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America, where the Zika outbreak has reached pandemic levels, according to several medical websites.

Since Aedes mosquitoes aren't this far north, an outbreak originating here is unlikely, said Dr. Marie George, infection control medical director at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.

However, George noted U.S. cases are popping up of people infected via sexual intercourse.

"We should feel locally that we're not going to have an outbreak, which is great, but it's possible that a person who brings it back could transmit it to their sexual partner," she said. "There are people concerned and calling and that's appropriate."

The CDC suggests that males should abstain from intercourse with their pregnant partner for the duration of the pregnancy if they have traveled to Zika-affected areas.

"Women of reproductive age with the Zika virus do not pose a risk for future pregnancy because the [infection in the] blood is expected to last one week," she said. "We don't know about people who may have acquired the virus without symptoms. At least people we know who have had symptoms after a week, they would not be transmitting the virus."

Aside from sexual contact, little else is known of how else humans can spread the virus to each other.

"The fact that the virus could be found in saliva, doesn't mean you're going to get the virus," Aucoin said. "The role of person to person transmission is unclear."

What is clear: mosquitoes are nasty buggers best know in the Northeast for spreading West Nile virus and eastern equine encephalitis, the later rare in humans.

"You should always take precautions against mosquito bites," Beckwith said. "This has been a good opportunity to remind people mosquitoes can transmit very serious illness."