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Q & A with AFSOUTH Command Surgeon: Zika Virus

  • Published
  • By 12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern) Public Affairs
With the Zika virus making headlines since it was confirmed throughout the Western Hemisphere, the Air Forces Southern Command Surgeon offered to answer common questions about the virus.

U.S. Air Force Colonel Leslie A. Knight is the Command Surgeon for 12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern) at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona.  As the medical advisor to the 12th Air Force Commander, she is responsible for all aspects of component health service support in the AFSOUTH area of responsibility, consisting of 31 countries in Central America, the Caribbean, Andean Ridge and Southern Cone, to include the development and implementation of medical plans, programs, and policies in support of the 12th AF (AFSOUTH) operations.  Col. Knight also directs real world contingency and peacetime medical operations including exercise, deployments, logistics, preventive medicine, force protection, and engagement activities to meet component and combatant command objectives.

Q: What is the Zika virus?
The Zika virus is not a new virus but this is the first time it has been confirmed within the Western Hemisphere. The Zika virus is part of the Flavivirus family which includes other viruses like West Nile, dengue, encephalitis, chikungunya, and yellow fever. This virus has been endemic in Africa and Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands for years, so it is only new to the Western Hemisphere.

It is spread by a mosquito, more commonly by the aedes aegypti and the aedes albopictus mosquito breeds.  The most important thing to remember about those mosquitos is they are aggressive day time biters. 

The only way to contract the Zika virus is to travel to an area where it is endemic or where it's being transmitted right now. Currently, the Zika virus is not being transmitted within the United States. There have been people who have returned to the U.S. who have contracted the virus in South America, but they did not catch it here.

Q: What can people do to reduce the risk of contracting Zika?
You prevent contracting the Zika virus the same way you prevent mosquito bites. Deployers need to make sure they treat their uniforms and clothing with the permethrin kits we give them. Wear long sleeves and long pants during the day, and make sure you are wearing DEET mosquito replant.

Q: Is insect repellent safe for pregnant women and small children?
Mosquito replant is safe for children two months old and above as well as pregnant women as long as it is FDA approved.  

Q: If bitten by a mosquito how do recognize the symptoms?
Unfortunately the symptoms of the Zika virus are similar to many of the other viruses in the Flavivirus family.  Symptoms that should concern you are headaches, muscle aches, joint pain, conjunctivitis, and rashes.  If you end up with two or more of those symptoms and have been in an area where the Zika virus exists, you should see your doctor.  Interestingly, 80% of people who contract the Zika virus never show any symptoms at all.

Q: Does the Zika virus kill?
Most people will contract the virus and never know it.  Very few people will be hospitalized and almost no one dies from it.

Q: Is there a vaccine for Zika?
  Currently there is no vaccine for Zika.  However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is discussing working on one.

Q: What is the treatment for Zika?
Treatment includes rest, fluids, and over the counter medications for fever and muscle aches.

Q: Can it be transmitted to others? Can it be transmitted via bodily fluids?
Right now we do not have the answer to that. 
A2: There is a case study about a man who in 2008 contracted the virus in Senegal [Africa], he went home and his wife then contracted the virus.  She had not been traveling to any places where the virus was prevalent, so they are concerned he spread that to her, possibly through sexual transmission.  There have also been animal studies that show that it may be sexually transmitted.  Right now that is an unproven hypothesis and there are no cases in our hemisphere that we know of where Zika has been transmitted from one human to another.

Q: If I am pregnant and catch the virus, how does the virus affect the fetus?
Pregnant women who contract the virus do not become any sicker than women who are not pregnant.  However, specifically in Brazil, they are concerned they are seeing a link between babies who are born to women who have contracted the Zika virus and microcephaly.  Microcephaly is condition where the brain doesn't develop properly in the uterus and the baby's head is smaller than normal when born.

Q: Should pregnant females avoid travel to a country with Zika?
Currently the CDC is recommending that women (who are pregnant or are planning on becoming pregnant) who don't need to travel to Central and South America don't do it.  If travel to areas where Zika is prevalent is unavoidable or if a women is already there and becomes pregnant and starts seeing symptoms, then she should see her physician who is providing her maternity care.  The current recommendations are that she has an ultrasound to examine the baby and see if there are any problems.

Q: What are your recommendations for deployers in Central and South America?
We already advise our deployers on mosquito precautions because there are mosquito borne diseases throughout the U.S. Southern Command's area of responsibility.  Specifically we worry about dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever.  So we ask our deployers to pretreat their uniforms and deploy them with a good supply of DEET.  If they should show any symptoms of any of the mosquito borne viruses [are headaches, muscle aches, joint pain, conjunctivitis, and rashes] they should go see their provider and discus whether or not they should be tested for the Zika virus. 

If you think you have contracted the Zika virus or any other mosquito borne viruses, you should see your medical provider.

For more information about the Zika virus please visit the CDC's website