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shutterstock_369189926The Zika virus has received wide attention over the past several months. Although Zika is present in the United States, with more than 100 confirmed cases, most people who get the virus do not get sick.  In New England, there are three confirmed cases of Zika – two Massachusetts individuals returning from affected areas and a New Hampshire resident who had sexual intercourse with a partner who had recently traveled to a Zika-infected country.  Nonetheless, people across the country are understandably concerned about Zika virus as new cases are confirmed regionally and nationally.

What do three confirmed cases of Zika virus in New England mean for residents in the northeast?

At the present time, the most important thing for residents in Massachusetts is to stay informed, according to Dr. Catherine Brown, deputy state epidemiologist and state public health veterinarian. While there have been reported cases in the United States, the mosquito that most commonly carries the virus does not have sustained breeding populations in Massachusetts.

Those considered at higher-risk who need to take extra precautions are individuals those traveling to Zika-infected areas, both in the Caribbean and South American countries.

Precautions for people traveling to Zika-infected areas include: application of insect repellent; use of long clothing to limit skin exposure; extra measures to prevent the bites of mosquitoes while traveling in infected areas such as sleeping under a mosquito bed net.

For those that do develop symptoms – which is only about 20 percent of individuals infected with Zika – they are uniformly mild, and may include fevers, skin rashes, conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain, lethargy or headaches, all of which can be treated with common medications. There is currently no vaccine against Zika virus.

Women who are pregnant or who want to become pregnant may face additional risks, said Dr. Brown. Zika virus infection may be associated with serious birth defects, the most notable of which is microcephaly (microcephaly is where a baby’s head is smaller than normal, which may lead to incomplete brain development). Women who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant are advised to avoid all travel to Zika-infected areas. If avoiding travel to infected areas is impossible, it imperative to take the precautions previously mentioned in order to reduce the risk of contracting the virus.

Women who are pregnant need to take the added measure of using latex condoms if they are having intercourse with a partner who has traveled to a Zika-infected area. Health officials are unsure of how long the virus can survive in semen, and so women who are trying to conceive after having just traveled to an infected area should seek medical advice.

Public health officials are rapidly learning more about the Zika virus and transmission, and the public will be kept up to date as prevention and treatment recommendations evolve with new discoveries. Please refer to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s fact sheet on Zika Virus, where updates will also be posted frequently. The CDC has also dedicated an entire page to the Zika Virus, and it can be found here.

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