Zika fever, also known as Zika virus disease or simply Zika, is an infectious disease caused by the Zika virus. Most cases have no symptoms, but when present they are usually mild and can resemble dengue fever. Symptoms may include fever, red eyes, joint pain, headache, and a maculopapular rash. Symptoms generally last less than seven days. It has not caused any reported deaths during the initial infection. Mother-to-child transmission during pregnancy can cause microcephaly and other brain malformations in some babies. Infections in adults have been linked to Guillain–Barré syndrome (GBS).
Zika fever is mainly spread via the bite of mosquitoes of the Aedes type. It can also be sexually transmitted and potentially spread by blood transfusions. Infections in pregnant women can spread to the baby. Diagnosis is by testing the blood, urine, or saliva for the presence of the virus’s RNA when the person is sick, or the blood for antibodies after symptoms are present more than a week.
Prevention involves decreasing mosquito bites in areas where the disease occurs and proper use of condoms. Efforts to prevent bites include the use of insect repellent, covering much of the body with clothing, mosquito nets, and getting rid of standing water where mosquitoes reproduce. There is no effective vaccine. Health officials recommended that women in areas affected by the 2015–16 Zika outbreak consider putting off pregnancy and that pregnant women not travel to these areas. While there is no specific treatment, paracetamol (acetaminophen) may help with the symptoms. Admission to hospital is rarely necessary.
The virus that causes the disease was first isolated in Africa in 1947. The first documented outbreak among people occurred in 2007 in the Federated States of Micronesia. An outbreak started in Brazil in 2015, and spread to the Americas, Pacific, Asia, and Africa. This led to the World Health Organization declared it a Public Health Emergency of International Concern in February 2016. The emergency was lifted in November 2016, but 84 countries still reported cases as of March 2017.
Zika virus is a mosquito-borne flavivirus closely related to the dengue and yellow fever viruses. While mosquitoes are the vector, the main reservoir species remains unknown, though serological evidence has been found in both West African monkeys and rodents.
Transmission is via the bite of mosquitoes from the genus Aedes, primarily Aedes aegypti in tropical regions. It has also been isolated from Ae. africanus, Ae. apicoargenteus, Ae. luteocephalus, Ae. Albopictus, Ae. vittatus and Ae. furcifer. During the 2007 outbreak on Yap Island in the South Pacific, Aedes hensilli was the vector, while Aedes polynesiensis spread the virus in French Polynesia in 2013.
Zika virus can also spread by sexual transmission from infected men to their partners. Zika virus has been isolated from semen samples, with one person having 100,000 times more virus in semen than blood or urine, two weeks after being infected. It is unclear why levels in semen can be higher than other body fluids, and it is also unclear how long infectious virus can remain in semen. There have also been cases of men with no symptoms of Zika virus infection transmitting the disease. The CDC has recommended that all men who have travelled to affected areas should wait at least 6 months before trying to attempt conception, regardless of if they were ill. To date there have been no reported sexual transmissions from women to their sexual partners. Oral, anal or vaginal sex can spread the disease.
Cases of vertical perinatal transmission have been reported. The CDC recommends that women with Zika fever should wait at least 8 weeks after they start having symptoms of disease before attempting to conceive. There have been no reported cases of transmission from breastfeeding, but infectious virus has been found in breast milk.
Like other flaviviruses it could potentially be transmitted by blood transfusion and several affected countries have developed strategies to screen blood donors. The U.S. FDA has recommended universal screening of blood products for Zika. The virus is detected in 3% of asymptomatic blood donors in French Polynesia.
The pathophysiology of Zika-induced microcephaly is not known and was a subject of active research as of the end of 2016.
It is difficult to diagnose Zika virus infection based on clinical signs and symptoms alone due to overlaps with other arboviruses that are endemic to similar areas. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that “based on the typical clinical features, the differential diagnosis for Zika virus infection is broad. In addition to dengue, other considerations include leptospirosis, malaria, rickettsia, group A streptococcus, rubella, measles, and parvovirus, enterovirus, adenovirus, and alphavirus infections (e.g., chikungunya, Mayaro, Ross River, Barmah Forest, O’nyong’nyong, and Sindbis viruses).”
In small case series, routine chemistry and complete blood counts have been normal in most patients. A few have been reported to have mild leukopenia, thrombocytopenia, and elevated liver transaminases.
Zika virus can be identified by reverse transcriptase PCR (RT-PCR) in acutely ill patients. However, the period of viremia can be short and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends RT-PCR testing be done on serum collected within 1 to 3 days of symptom onset or on saliva samples collected during the first 3 to 5 days. When evaluating paired samples, Zika virus was detected more frequently in saliva than serum. Urine samples can be collected and tested up to 14 days after the onset of symptoms, as the virus has been seen to survive longer in the urine than either saliva or serum. The longest period of detectable virus has been 11 days and Zika virus does not appear to establish latency.
Later on, serology for the detection of specific IgM and IgG antibodies to Zika virus can be used. IgM antibodies can be detectable within 3 days of the onset of illness. Serological cross-reactions with closely related flaviviruses such as dengue and West Nile virus as well as vaccines to flaviviruses are possible. Commercial assays for Zika antibodies are now available but have not yet been FDA approved.
Screening in pregnancy
The CDC recommends screening some pregnant women even if they do not have symptoms of infection. Pregnant women who have traveled to affected areas should be tested between two and twelve weeks after their return from travel. Due to the difficulties with ordering and interpreting tests for Zika virus, the CDC also recommends that healthcare providers contact their local health department for assistance. For women living in affected areas, the CDC has recommended testing at the first prenatal visit with a doctor as well as in the mid-second trimester, though this may be adjusted based on local resources and the local burden of Zika virus. Additional testing should be done if there are any signs of Zika virus disease. Women with positive test results for Zika virus infection should have their fetus monitored by ultrasound every three to four weeks to monitor fetal anatomy and growth.
For infants with suspected congenital Zika virus disease, the CDC recommends testing with both serologic and molecular assays such as RT-PCR, IgM ELISA and plaque reduction neutralization test (PRNT). RT-PCR of the infants serum and urine should be performed in the first two days of life. Newborns with a mother who was potentially exposed and who have positive blood tests, microcephaly or intracranial calcifications should have further testing including a thorough physical investigation for neurologic abnormalities, dysmorphic features, splenomegaly, hepatomegaly, and rash or other skin lesions. Other recommended tests are cranial ultrasound, hearing evaluation, and eye examination. Testing should be done for any abnormalities encountered as well as for other congenital infections such as syphilis, toxoplasmosis, rubella, cytomegalovirus infection, lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus infection, and herpes simplex virus. Some tests should be repeated up to 6 months later as there can be delayed effects, particularly with hearing.
The virus is spread by mosquitoes, making mosquito avoidance an important element to disease control. The CDC recommends that individuals:
Cover exposed skin by wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants treated with permethrin.
Use an insect repellent containing DEET, picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE), or IR3535
Always follow product directions and reapply as directed
If you are also using sunscreen, apply sunscreen first, let it dry, then apply insect repellent
Follow package directions when applying repellent on children. Avoid applying repellent to their hands, eyes, or mouth
Stay and sleep in screened-in or air-conditioned rooms
Use a bed net if the area where you are sleeping is exposed to the outdoors
Cover cribs, strollers and carriers with mosquito netting for babies under 2 months old.
The CDC also recommends strategies for controlling mosquitoes such as eliminating standing water, repairing septic tanks and using screens on doors and windows. Spraying insecticide is used to kill flying mosquitoes and larvicide can be used in water containers.
Because Zika virus can be sexually transmitted, men who have gone to an area where Zika fever is occurring should be counseled to either abstain from sex or use condoms for 6 months after travel if their partner is pregnant or could potentially become pregnant. Breastfeeding is still recommended by the WHO, even by women who have had Zika fever. There have been no recorded cases of Zika transmission to infants through breastfeeding, though the replicative virus has been detected in breast milk.
When returning from travel, with or without symptoms, it is suggested that prevention of mosquito bites continue for 3 weeks in order reduce the risk of virus transmission to uninfected mosquitos.
CDC travel alert
Because of the “growing evidence of a link between Zika and microcephaly”, in January 2016, the CDC issued a travel alert advising pregnant women to consider postponing travel to countries and territories with ongoing local transmission of Zika virus. Later, the advice was updated to caution pregnant women to avoid these areas entirely if possible and, if travel is unavoidable, to protect themselves from mosquito bites. Male partners of pregnant women and couples contemplating pregnancy who must travel to areas where Zika is active are advised to use condoms or abstain from sex entirely. The agency also suggested that women thinking about becoming pregnant should consult with their physicians before traveling.
As of September 2016, the CDC travel advisories include:
Many parts of the Caribbean: Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, The Bahamas, Barbados, Bonaire, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Cuba, Curaçao, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Puerto Rico, Saba, Saint Saint Barthélemy, Saint Lucia, Saint Martin, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Sint Eustatius, Sint Maarten, Trinidad and Tobago, and the U.S. Virgin Islands
Central America: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama
Most of South America: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela
Several Pacific Islands: American Samoa, Fiji, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, and Tonga
In Asia: Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei
Both the regional Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) as well as the WHO have issued statements of concern about the widespread public health impact of the Zika virus and its links to GBS and microcephaly. The WHO Director-General, Margaret Chan, issued a statement in February 2016 “declaring that the recent cluster of microcephaly cases and other neurological disorders reported in Brazil, following a similar cluster in French Polynesia in 2014, constitutes a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” The declaration allowed the WHO to coordinate international response to the virus as well as gave its guidance the force of international law under the International Health Regulations. The declaration was ended in November 2016.