Zika virus overview

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently declared the Zika virus “a global health emergency." Polyclinic providers Drs. Sarah Oman, Amy Treakle and Meghana Doreswamy share basic facts about the virus and what you can do to protect yourself.

What does Zika virus mean for residents in the Puget Sound region?

So far, this is what we know:

  • Zika virus is transmitted by mosquito bites or through sexual intercourse (it has been found in semen), and lives in the body’s bloodstream for about two weeks.
  • Zika virus is not currently present in Washington state, nor transmitted by mosquitos found in the region.
  • There is potential for Zika virus to linger in semen longer than it does in the bloodstream. This is more concerning for women in the Puget Sound region who aren't as likely to contract a Zika virus infection from mosquitos but could get it through sexual intercourse.
  • Just one in five of those infected may show symptoms within several days of infection; symptoms such as fever, rash and joint pain, which diminish after about a week.
  • There is no threat to future pregnancies once it is cleared from the mother’s bloodstream because of its short duration in the body.
  • There is currently no vaccine or medication to prevent Zika virus infection.

The WHO’s heightened alert derives from the link between Zika virus infection during pregnancy and potential fetal birth defects such as microcephaly. The sudden spike in infants born with microcephaly in northern Brazil launched worldwide attention to the virus.

Confirming Zika virus’s connection to these impacted infants and specific birth defects still eludes researchers. Health officials are currently studying the population of affected mothers and babies in Brazil to determine the role of other possible contributing factors such as concurrent infection, nutrition, environment, and other microorganisms during pregnancy.

Even if the outbreak of the Zika virus results in more cases among travelers visiting or returning to the United States, it is unlikely that the virus will spread in the Puget Sound region. Even so, the link between pregnant women infected with Zika virus and severe birth defects has prompted questions from patients and residents in the community.

What can we do to protect ourselves?

  • If pregnant, avoid travel to an area infected with the Zika virus. Currently, no locally transmitted Zika cases have been reported in the continental United States. Reported cases of Zika virus infection have been among returning travelers only.
  • If you are pregnant and cannot avoid travel to an area infected with the Zika virus, take active precautions against mosquito bites. Use insect repellant such as Deet, picaridin, or IR3535 all of which are safe during pregnancy. Wear long sleeves and pants, and stay indoors as much as possible.
  • If you are a woman who has traveled or will travel to an area affected by the Zika virus, delay trying to get pregnant until one month after travel.
  • The risk for sexual transmission of the Zika virus exists. If you are a man who has traveled or will travel to an affected area, you can eliminate or reduce risk of Zika virus transmission by abstaining from sexual intercourse or using condoms during sex. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that more studies are needed to determine the exact characterization for sexual transmission risk, and it will update its recommendations as soon as more is known.

Pregnant women who have traveled to an area impacted by the Zika virus are the highest priority for testing. The CDC’s latest guidelines now recommend that all pregnant women, even those without symptoms, be tested if they have recently visited a country where Zika is endemic. The CDC also recommends ultrasound evaluation for signs of Zika infection, such as intracranial calcifications and microcephaly for those same women in the late second trimester of pregnancy.

The CDC is working with health departments and other organizations across the U.S. (including the Washington State Department of Health) to increase the availability of testing for the Zika virus. However, there are many other infections that one can get while travelling and if you have a fever (or other symptoms of illness) and have travelled recently, you should be seen by your primary care doctor.

With information about the Zika virus continuing to evolve, Polyclinic providers advise patients to pay close attention to both the Washington State Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control websites.

Patients with questions about symptoms or concerns following travel should contact their primary care physician.


February 15, 2016 | by The Polyclinic