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For months now news and social media outlets have featured stories on the spread of the Zika virus and the dangers it presents. With the upcoming Olympic Games in South America – not to mention summer travel season approaching – that leaves parents with a lot of questions. I wrote about Zika a few months ago, but there have been new developments and I want to take a moment to review and update our families on the science and medical issues.

Zika virus was actually first identified in 1947 in Africa. Initially, it was found along equatorial regions of Africa and Asia, but in mid-2015 the first cases were reported in the Western Hemisphere in Brazil. Since then it has been confirmed in 22 other countries in the Americas – and the rate of spread became so great that in February 2016 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a public health emergency.

Zika is a virus that spreads from person to person through the bite of an infected mosquito – either the yellow fever mosquito or the Asian tiger mosquito. To date there have been multiple cases in the U.S. of Zika infection, but the Center for Disease Control (CDC) investigations have found that all were in travelers returning from affected countries – and no cases have been contracted locally. However – there is great concern among infectious disease experts that these “imported” cases could result in local spread in some areas and that by this summer the virus may be endemic in some parts of the U.S.

About 20% of infected individuals develop symptoms. The illness is usually mild – lasting less than a week, with symptoms such as fever, pink eye, rash and mild joint pains. There are no treatments – just comfort and supportive care. The most severe repercussions are the effects of the virus on babies born to pregnant mothers who become infected. Federal health officials have confirmed that the Zika virus can cause microcephaly (babies born with a small head) and other significant brain abnormalities in infants.

There is no vaccine to protect individuals from contracting Zika- so the key to keeping your family safe will be effective use of insect repellents and monitoring for updates from public health officials – especially for families with plans to travel to Central or South America. And as always, call with questions or schedule an appointment at the Kids First Travel Clinic. Wishing everyone a safe summer.