Don’t Panic: Zika, the Summer Olympics, and You
If you only read this paragraph, here’s why the Olympics happening in the midst of Rio’s Zika outbreak shouldn’t worry you: First, Zika is primarily spread by two species of mosquito–known as Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus–that don’t live in Washington, so the chance that it could spread widely here is pretty close to nil. Second, for most adults it’s a pretty mild illness. Pregnant women need to be most cautious because their babies are at the highest risk of severe consequences.
If you travel anywhere impacted by Zika, like Rio or even Puerto Rico, you can prevent mosquito bites – and therefore Zika – by using bug spray (DEET, picaridin, IR3535, OLE, and PMD have been proven safe and effective). Just as important, wear clothing that covers your arms and legs, and “mosquito-proof” your accommodations by closing or screening doors and windows and/or using a mosquito net.
Zika is typically a mild illness in adults, marked by fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes. But it’s linked to a serious birth defect in newborns called microcephaly – an unusually small brain and skull. So if you’re pregnant or planning to become pregnant, extra precaution is recommended, including postponing travel to impacted areas if possible. Because Zika can also be spread through sex with a man, always use a condom with a male partner who has recently traveled to an area with Zika (even if they’re not showing any symptoms). This may mean using a condom throughout your pregnancy, or waiting to conceive for at least eight weeks if your male partner has no symptoms of Zika.
Chances are, most of us in Washington won’t be exposed to Zika. So why should it matter? Well, our immunization team at WithinReach can think of a few reasons. It’s a good reminder that in an age of global travel, infectious diseases are only a plane ride away. Already, 15 cases in Washington have been confirmed among recent travelers (as of July 20th). Many of the diseases we vaccinate against are equally easy to import into Washington – and without the need for a vector, like a mosquito, they can spread much more easily when they do arrive. That’s why it’s so important to protect our communities through immunization.
Zika also has one thing in common with a disease we routinely vaccinate against: rubella. When a pregnant mom becomes ill with rubella, it can have terrible consequences for her developing fetus. In 1964, the U.S. experienced a huge rubella outbreak that affected 50,000 pregnant women and led to thousands of miscarriages and 20,000 cases of congenital rubella syndrome, in which babies are born with symptoms including blindness, deafness, heart defects, and cataracts. Now that we have the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine, very few American babies are born with congenital rubella syndrome – primarily only when their mother is infected during international travel. Sound familiar? With Zika, like rubella, we know that protecting pregnant women is our biggest priority. Hopefully, one day we will have a vaccine to help us do so.
So whether you enjoy watching the world’s top athletes compete in Rio or on your TV, have a safe and healthy summer! And if they inspire you to get out and be active, all the better – just don’t forget your bug spray.