The Zika epidemic has been slowly building momentum in the southern hemisphere for months and now it has hit the shores of the United States. This mosquito borne illness is unlike others, causing nurses, doctors and other medical professionals to have to rethink how they deal with this type of infection.
The History of the Zika Virus
The Zika virus was first isolated in a monkey in a 1947 during a study of yellow fever in Uganda’s Zika Forest. The same strain of virus was also found in Aedes Africanus mosquitos, confirming their role in the transmission of the illness. Despite this, infections and outbreaks of Zika remained rare, and isolated only to parts of Africa and Asia.
Then in 2007 there were reported cases of Zika in Yap Island, followed by more in French Polynesia in 2013. Within two years the virus had spread to Brazil, where it is believed that it was imported to the country during the 2004 World Cup championship. In less than a year, Zika has spread like wildfire throughout Southern and Latin America, heading straight into Mexico and now beyond.
Symptoms of the Zika Virus
The Zika virus is of the same family as dengue, yet it carries distinct symptoms that should immediately set it apart from other viruses. A nurse who suspects Zika may note that the patient is complaining of a headache, joint pain and possibly a fever. These symptoms don’t always appear at the same time, so it is important that you ask the patient how they were feeling for a few days prior to seeking medical attention.
A rash is also noted with Zika virus, typically originating on the stomach and in some cases spreading to the rest of the body. The rash resembles the one often found with Chikungunya, another common mosquito born virus found in Central America, which made the illness even harder to diagnose in those under developed nations.
The last, and most unique, symptom of Zika is red eyes or conjunctivitis. This is an easy symptom for a nurse to spot, and one in which should alert you right away to the possibility of the illness.
Diagnosing and Treating Zika Virus
The incubation period for Zika is not yet known, but the CDC estimates that it can be anywhere from a couple of days to up to one week after exposure. Most people won’t even develop symptoms, and many of those who do will assume it is nothing more than a flu virus and treat it as such. For those whose symptoms are severe enough to seek medical attention, you will need to order a blood test in order to confirm the diagnosis.
No vaccine has been developed to prevent Zika, and there are no known medicines to treat the infection. Like with the flu, your patient will be advised to drink fluids and get plenty of bed rest. Tylenol may be offered to help bring down a fever and ease painful symptoms, but aspirin or other non-steroid anti-inflammatories are not recommended. It is believed that once a person has contracted Zika they become immune to the virus, but in some instances the symptoms are prolonged and the patient may have recurring bouts of the illness for weeks or longer even after the initial bout seems to pass.
The Real Problem With Zika
As a nurse, you are likely thinking “so what’s the big deal” with this virus. It seems difficult to contract, it doesn’t seem to affect the majority of people infected, and the treatment plan is not much more than stay at home and drink plenty of chicken soup. Yet there is evidence that suggests that the effects of Zika could extend further than what we have ever seen before with a simple virus.
The first condition that has been tied to Zika virus is Guillain-Barre syndrome, a progressive disease that causes muscle weakness. This is due to the patient’s own immune system attacking their peripheral nerves. While most people will recover fully from this disease, some could develop paralysis. For patients who have progressed to Guillain-Barre syndrome it is recommended that they be monitored carefully until the symptoms subside.
Congenital microcephaly is the second condition that has been linked to the Zika virus. This is a birth effect where the baby is born with an abnormally small head and brain. There has been a surge in the occurrence over the last year, especially in countries like Brazil where Zika has spread across the entire country. This has led to a number of nations urging women to avoid pregnancy for the next few years, especially in southern and central America. If you are approached by a pregnant women who is displaying symptoms of the Zika virus, you should immediately make a call to have her obstetrician monitor her condition for the duration of the pregnancy.
Preventing the Spread of the Zika Virus
Since it was first believed that Zika is spread primarily through mosquitoes, it is prudent to advise your patient to avoid contact by wearing protective clothing and using repellents to ward them off. New evidence is also suggesting that the disease could be spread through bodily fluids, so you may want to talk to your patients about the importance of practicing safe sex. With a disease that has such high consequences, you cannot be too careful when it comes to trying to stop it from spreading further.
The confirmation of a new disease can be dreadful to a nurse, especially when it is as complicated as the Zika virus is. Prepare yourself with a significant amount of knowledge as it pertains to Zika so that you can recognize the signs, provide some relief, and hopefully prevent the disease from spreading further into the northern hemisphere.