New Threat of Zika Virus – Guillain-Barré Syndrome Spike

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The spread and effects of the Zika virus continue to be an almost daily item in news reports. The emergence of this mysterious virus is a classic example of the appearance, impact, investigation and response to a novel disease.

There are two notable recent developments. The first is that the CDC is investigating 14 cases of possible sexual transmission. While this is not an entirely new development – the advice on reducing risk remains the same – it may indicate that transmission via sexual contact is more prevalent that initially suspected.

Zika remains in the bloodstream for approximately a week. It lingers in semen for much longer; one case documented for 63 days. Women who are or may become pregnant should avoid travel to infected areas. Everyone who has traveled to such a region should practice safer sex (use a latex condom) or abstain from sexual contact for at least two months. It is important to realize that 80 percent of Zika infections are asymptomatic. Because you have no signs does not mean you are not carrying the virus.

The other significant development has been a spike in the occurrence of Guillain-Barré syndrome among people infected by Zika in Colombia.

Guillain-Barré syndrome, or GBS, is a condition in which the immune system attacks the nerves. The exact cause of Guillain-Barré is unknown. It is often preceded by an infectious illness such as a respiratory infection or a norovirus. Initial symptoms are weakness and tingling in the feet and legs. This can spread to the upper body and increase in the legs until the person is unable to walk. Paralysis can occur.

Guillain BarreThere is no cure for GBS. Special blood treatments (plasma exchange and immunoglobulin therapy) can relieve symptoms. Physical therapy is needed. Access to such advanced support is extremely limited in poor, rural areas. Because of this, a high percentage of the increased cases in Colombia have been fatal.

Given this development, and increased sense of awareness and prudent travel plans are warranted. Employers should give second thought to business trips to areas where Zika is endemic. This is not to say you should limit commerce, but that who travels should be considered. Allowing pregnant women and their partners to not visit such areas would be a reasonable approach.

Anyone who has recently traveled to an infected region or who has had intimate relations with someone who has should be familiar with the symptoms of Zika and GBS and should seek medical advice should they appear.

Families and facility managers can help reduce the risk of Zika transmission by effective mosquito control. Mosquitoes breed in standing water. Empty water that collects on your property, treat ponds and other still-water with larvicide and encourage use of EPA approved insect repellent. The gestation period for the Aedeas mosquito is approximately seven days, so a weekly mosquito prevention program would be appropriate.

Like Lyme and West Nile before it, Zika is now a part of our daily reality. Awareness and a proactive approach are the answer.

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