Joy Hall,  Associate Professor/Head of Department Public and Community Health

The Zika virus has been making the press over the past few weeks, culminating in reports today (February 3) that it has reached Dallas, USA in a rare case of the disease being transmitted through sex. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has already moved to declare it a global emergency – placing it in the same category of concern as Ebola. However it is very different from Ebola, in that it is most often spread via mosquito bites rather than casual human to human contact. Most infections are mild and cause no or few symptoms and the risks are mainly to pregnant women and their unborn child.

The current emergency has been declared mainly because of these risks to pregnant women. In Brazil alone, more than 4,000 reported cases of microcephaly – in which babies are born with underdeveloped brains – have been linked to the disease since October. The WHO previously warned that Zika was likely to spread across all of the Americas, with more than 20 countries reporting cases explosively. It anticipates that the disease could infect as many as 4 million people in South and Central America in 2016.

So what does this mean for people travelling to countries effected by Zika? Well, as would be expected, the advice is primarily aimed at women who are pregnant – namely to postpone travel to an area where an outbreak is occurring and if this is not possible to take strict insect avoidance measures. Public Health England offer more detailed advice here.

The news today follows a small number of other reported cases in which the disease has been transmitted via sexual intercourse (although the risk is still thought to be very low). In this instance if a male partner has travelled to a country with an ongoing Zika outbreak, the couple are advised to use a condom for 28 days following his return to the UK. If he has shown symptoms of a Zika infection, or had an infection confirmed by a doctor, then the couple are warned to use condoms for six months.

More general advice about Zika and travel can be obtained from the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC) website or the Scottish travel health service fitfortravel.

In terms of the reaction to the virus, it appears that the WHO’s decision to declare a global emergency, is at least partly based on the heavy criticism it received for its management of the Ebola crisis, leading to a more pre-emptive approach. By declaring the Zika situation a global emergency early, it enables much more stringent measures to be taken.

This should see the fast-tracking of vaccine production, the mobilisation of public health experts from around the globe, but perhaps most importantly, resources aimed at tackling the problem at source. That means the effective management or eradication of the Aedes mosquito which is known to thrive in overpopulated urban areas. This provides another example of why managing public health requires more than just a medical approach and needs to address other issues which influence health, such as poverty.

The main advice being given to people living in countries effected revolves around women avoiding becoming pregnant. This is alongside practical advice to wear long sleeve shirts and long trousers, stay in air conditioned places, use window or door screens and use insect repellents. In terms of keeping babies safe, the advice is similar except that insect repellent is not safe to use for babies under two-months-old, plus the use of mosquito netting on cots.

The long term consequences for the children and families impacted are as yet not really known. However, it would appear safe to say that the psychological distress and socio-economic burden on the families is likely to be great. This in countries that are, in many cases resource and economically poor.

More about the symptoms of Zika infection and other useful information.

You could study more about public health with a degree course at Birmingham City University. Find out more.

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