On February 1, the World Health Organization (WHO) took the rare step of declaring an international public health emergency in connection with the spread of the Zika virus in the Americas. Over the last year, the mosquito-borne illness has become endemic throughout the Caribbean and in many parts of Latin America. While infection with Zika normally results in symptoms the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) describes as “mild”—fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis being most common—the virus has been linked to birth defects, specifically microcephaly, and to Guillain-Barré syndrome, an illness in which the body’s own immune system attacks the nerves.
“Zika spreads through the bites of the same type of mosquito that transmits dengue and chikungunya, and it produces similar symptoms in infected individuals,” explains MIT Medical Associate Medical Director Howard Heller, M.D., MPH, an infectious disease specialist. After an infected mosquito bites an individual, traces of the virus may be found in that person’s blood for up to a week. During this time, mosquitoes that bite that person can become infected and then pass on the virus to others. The mosquitoes that transmit Zika are not found in New England.
Zika is not spread through casual contact, Heller emphasizes. “However,” he notes, “sexual transmission of Zika has been reported, and it is not yet known how long infected patients may be contagious through sexual contact.”
Since January 15, when the CDC issued its first Zika-related travel alert for people traveling to areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing, MIT and MIT Medical have taken steps to protect and inform vulnerable members of the Institute community, including patients of MIT Medical’s OB/GYN Service and Travel Clinic, participants in MIT programs in Zika-affected countries, and patients from affected countries who may be planning to travel home to visit family and friends. MIT currently has no restrictions on travel to Zika-affected areas, but students participating in MIT-sponsored programs in those areas are now required to sign MIT’s Travel Risk Acknowledgement Form.
Testing for Zika
Currently, testing for the Zika virus is available only through the CDC. MIT Medical can arrange CDC testing for Zika for individuals returning from an affected area with symptoms. But, Heller notes, MIT Medical clinicians will also evaluate such patients for other mosquito-borne illnesses, such as dengue fever, that produce similar symptoms.
In addition, MIT Medical will coordinate serologic (antibody) testing for Zika through the CDC for for individuals with Guillain-Barré Syndrome and for pregnant women who have recently been in a Zika-affected area. Serologic testing reveals previous exposure to the virus, Heller explains. Because the virus has been linked to birth defects, it is important for clinicians to know if a pregnant woman has been infected, even if she never became seriously ill, he says. “But if you don’t have symptoms, and you’re not pregnant, the CDC will not do a Zika test, even if you have recently returned from an affected area.
“MIT Medical and MIT’s International Safety and Security Program will continue to monitor the situation closely and will keep the community informed,” Heller says. “Our clinical recommendations and the Institute’s travel advice may change as the situation evolves, and we’ll continue to keep this page up to date with the latest information.”
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