The Zika virus disease and India: Health guidelines and facts you should know

The Zika virus disease is a cause of concern, but Indians need not panic just yet.

Written by Shruti Chakraborty | New Delhi | Updated: February 18, 2016 7:28 pm
FILE - In this Jan. 27, 2016, file photo, an Aedes aegypti mosquito is photographed through a microscope at the Fiocruz institute in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil. The mosquito behind the Zika virus seems to operate like a heat-driven missile of disease. Scientists say the hotter it gets, the better the mosquito that carries Zika virus is at transmitting a variety of dangerous illnesses. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File) The Aedes Aegypti mosquito whose bite transmits the disease is the same as the one that transmits dengue and chikungunya, which is widely prevalent in India. (Source: AP)

After the US, on February 18, Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean confirmed the first case of Zika virus, reminding people from around the world to be more careful while travelling internationally, especially to Zika-hit countries. Several countries, including India, have already raised an alert to guard against the spread of the mosquito-born virus. A day after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared emergency over the “explosive” spread of the virus, the Indian health ministry issued detailed guidelines for combating the disease.

India needs to be particularly conscious about the spread of the disease since the mosquito that carries the virus actually thrives in the country. The Aedes Aegypti mosquito whose bite transmits the disease is the same as the one that transmits dengue and chikungunya, which is widely prevalent in India.

Also read: All you need to know about the Zika virus

According to the health ministry guidelines document, “Zika virus disease has the potential for further international spread given the wide geographical distribution of the mosquito vector.” Though India has thus far not reported any case, given the large number of people suffering from dengue, Indians have to take extra care to protect themselves. Symptoms of the Zika virus disease include mild fever, headache, skin rash, muscle and joint pain, malaise, conjunctivitis; and may last for two to seven days.

Also, the mosquito behind the Zika virus seems to operate like a heat-driven missile of disease. Scientists say the hotter it gets, the better the mosquito that carries Zika virus is at transmitting a variety of dangerous illnesses. And, with the temperature rising across India, it becomes more important to take precautions and not let the Aedes Aegypti mosquito breed.

Though caution is advised, Indians need not panic. “Zika is not life-threatening like dengue and chikungunya, and it is a self-remitting disease, so — at this point — there is nothing to panic about,” says Dr Shelly Singh, senior consultant, Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Primus Hospital, Delhi.

Dr Singh admits that going by the number of dengue cases in India, there is cause for concern, because one of the problems with figuring out whether the disease exists in India is that the symptoms in a person infected by Zika are the same as those generated by dengue. “But since the virus is not indigenous to India, being careful of the vector and taking the same precautions as you would against dengue should help keep the disease at bay,” says Dr Singh. For those who travel extensively and are worried, she advises getting a basic blood test done, with special focus on IgM antibodies. An increased number of IgM antibodies may be indicative of the presence of the Zika virus.

The most important point is to avoid travelling to affected areas such as Latin American countries like Brazil, and the Caribbean, especially pregnant women and women who are planning a child. Dr Brian Levine, a New York City fertility doctor, “spent the majority of the last week counselling patients about (the) Zika virus. I’ve had to have discussions about cancelling babymoons, cancelling trips before starting in vitro fertilisation and even having husbands provide a frozen semen sample because they plan on travelling to a Zika-affected region for work.”

Also, there is a sexual means of transmitting the virus too as it lives in the semen for a long time, so it’s important to know if your partner has been to any Zika-affected region in the recent past, advises Dr Singh. As reports confirm the Texas, US, case to be transferred sexually, it becomes all the more crucial to make sure sexual partners who have visited those regions get themselves checked.

Thus far, there is no vaccine for the virus. But since it is a self-remitting disease, a person can be hopeful of being cured within a week or two, and the treatment is usually symptomatic. With respect to the concern about microcephaly — a condition in which a baby is born with an abnormally small head and brain — that has been linked to the Zika virus in Brazil (this is because there has been a 20-fold increase in microcephaly in newborns in Brazil possibly pointing to a causal relationship with the Zika virus), Dr Singh says that the tricky period is the the one between first and second trimesters for the virus to affect the unborn child and lead to microcephaly. “It’s also important to know that being infected with the Zika virus does not mean the newborn WILL have microcephaly, and neither does once having the Zika virus disease mean that future pregnancies would be affected.”

Here’s a list of the guidelines issued by the health ministry and doctors that you should keep with you:

1. Prevent mosquito breeding around houses.
2. Use mosquito repellents to protect yourself from mosquito bites.
3. Non-essential travel to the affected countries in the Latin American region and the Caribbean should be deferred/cancelled.
4. Pregnant women or women who are trying to become pregnant should defer/cancel their travel to the affected areas.
5. All travellers to the affected countries/areas should strictly follow individual protective measures, especially during the day, to prevent mosquito bites (use of mosquito repellant cream, electronic mosquito repellants, use of bed nets, and dress that appropriately covers most of the body parts).
6. Persons with co-morbid conditions (diabetes, hypertension, chronic respiratory illness, immunity disorders, etc.) should seek advice from the nearest health facility, prior to travel to an affected country.
7. Travellers who complain of fever within two weeks of return from an affected country should report to the nearest health facility.
8. Pregnant women who have travelled to areas with Zika virus transmission should mention about their travel during ante-natal visits in order to be assessed and monitored appropriately.

With inputs from AP and PTI