The Zika virus, a mosquito-borne disease transmitted by the Aedes Aegypti and the Aedes Albopictus (Asian Tiger Mosquito) became an international public health emergency in 2016, when a large outbreak in Brazil revealed that the virus caused a significant birth defect called microcephaly in babies born from Zika-infected pregnant women. This defect is characterized by abnormally small heads and severely damaged brains. In 2016, Zika cases hit their peak in the United States, and it became a nationally notifiable condition with a total of 5,168 symptomatic cases reported to the CDC. Thankfully, since then, cases here have dropped significantly.
While only about 20% of those infected with Zika will ever develop noticeable symptoms (muscle pain, headache, fever, joint pain, pinkeye, etc.), the main concern for the public remains to be in pregnant women. While it is no longer a threat in the United States, there are currently Zika outbreaks in many areas of the world, especially in Central and South America, Indonesia, and Middle Africa, and the CDC recommends that pregnant women not travel to any of these places at all.
However, microcephaly is not the only serious health risk associated with the Zika virus. It has long been suspected that there is a link between Zika and a rare neurological disease called Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS). This is a very serious disease that occurs when one’s own immune system attacks the nerves. It starts with numbness and tingling in the extremities and can quickly spread to paralysis of the whole body, including muscles that affect breathing, if not treated early. The good news is that most people fully recover from GBS, though some have permanent damage. Very few people (between 3-5%) die from it.
Recently, Peru declared an alert over a suspected outbreak of Guillain-Barré syndrome, with 42 confirmed cases in the first four months of 2018, compared to only 22 cases in the same time period in 2016. This increase in GBS cases is suspected to be linked to the increased number of Zika virus in the area.
While researchers have strongly suspected there is some kind of link between the two diseases, it is important to note that these numbers are only correlations. According to the CDC, a definite link between Zika and GBS has yet to be found, though they are continuing to do more research. Only a small proportion of people with recent Zika virus infection actually get GBS.
Thankfully, the chances of getting infected with the Zika virus here in Illinois (or anywhere in the continental United States) are extremely low these days. But if you are traveling internationally, especially if you or your travel companions are pregnant or possibly pregnant, please check out the CDC’s interactive map of current worldwide Zika activity to learn about precautions you should take to avoid contracting the Zika virus and any other associated illnesses.
While Zika really isn’t concern here, and thus not GBS, it doesn’t mean we’re in the clear. There are still plenty of mosquito-borne diseases we are at risk of here, especially West Nile virus, which has been confirmed in both animals and people in our state since May. Your best protection against contracting a mosquito-borne illness is avoiding mosquitos all together. Mosquito Squad’s signature barrier treatment eliminates nearly 90% of mosquitoes (and ticks!) in your yard for three weeks at a time.