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The Zika Virus: What You Need To Know

The Zika virus is prompting great concern because of a disturbing connection to a neurological birth disorder and its rapid spread across the globe. Transmitted by mosquitos, the virus has been linked to a rare birth defect called microcephaly, which causes babies to have small heads and incomplete brain development. Now a new study published in the journal JAMA suggests the Zika virus may also cause eye abnormalities in newborns. Here is an ophthalmologist’s insights on the mosquito-borne virus and its potential impact on vision.

“Babies born with microcephaly often have developmental issues, as well as hearing and vision problems,” explained Sandy T. Feldman, MD, the Medical Director of Clearview Eye & Laser Medical Center in San Diego and one the nation’s top ophthalmologists. “What’s curious about the JAMA study is that more than a third of the babies tested showed signs of scarring on the optical nerve, which can cause progressive vision loss. Researchers suspect these ocular lesions were caused by the Zika virus, not the microcephaly.”

Dr. Feldman notes 10 key health points about the Zika virus:

  • There appears to be a link between the Zika virus and microcephaly, a neurological disorder that results in babies being born with abnormally small heads and severe developmental issues.
  • All infants exposed to the virus should have a retinal eye exam. Even newborns who don’t have microcephaly but whose mothers may have been exposed to the virus during pregnancy should be monitored for signs of ocular lesions.
  • There is currently no vaccine or medicine to prevent the virus or treat the infection.
  • The Zika virus has been reported in 32 countries thus far, including Latin America, South America, Mexico, the Pacific Islands and the Caribbean. Several US states have confirmed the virus in individuals who traveled to infected areas. Experts estimate as many as four million people will be infected within the next year.
  • Symptoms of the virus are typically mild, including fever, headache, rash and pink eye. An estimated 80% of those infected never know they have the disease.
  • The Zika virus is most commonly transmitted when a mosquito bites a person with an active infection, then spreads the virus by biting others.
  • The only protection against Zika is to avoid travel to areas with an active infestation. If you do travel to a country where Zika is present, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advisesusing an EPA-approved repellent over sunscreen, wearing long pants and long-sleeve shirts thick enough to block a mosquito bite, and sleeping in rooms that are air-conditioned and screened.
  • The CDC is warning pregnant women to avoid travel to infected areas and to speak with their doctor about taking steps to avoid unintended pregnancies.
  • A clinical trial for a Zika virus vaccine may begin this year, but a vaccine won’t be available for another few years.
  • Health officials are implementing traditional mosquito control techniques, such as spraying pesticides and emptying standing water receptacles where mosquitoes breed. The CDC also encourages homeowners to eliminate any standing water.

Image Credit: Eirin Henriksen via freeimages

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