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Zika Virus Creates Real Worries for Travelers, Pregnant Women

As springs break quickly approaches for thousands of school children, many families across the country will venture to warmer climates for a vacation getaway. But with increasing warnings about the Zika virus, concerns and even fear may be sinking in for some people. In some respects those fears should be taken seriously, said Dr. James Morgan, chief medical officer with MHCC, especially for women who are pregnant or wanting to become pregnant.

"The big issue is if you're becoming pregnant," Morgan said. "There's enough of a correlation already, it's worth stirring up some fear."

That fear comes from a number of Brazilian women reporting that after contracting Zika while pregnant, they gave birth to a child with microcephaly, a birth defect where a baby's head is small and hasn't developed properly. Children with microcephaly may have seizures, developmental delays, intellectual disability, hearing loss and vision problems.

While Zika isn't anything new, in fact scientists have known about the virus since 1947 - this particular outbreak is quite large and with new research there is a better understanding of how the virus impacts people, especially the developing fetus.

While the biggest impact has been seen in children whose mothers contracted Zika during their pregnancy, there has been a small link to people who have compromised immune systems developing Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare disorder that causes a person's immune system to damage their nerve cells, causing muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis. While Guillain-Barre syndrome typically impacts people for a few weeks, in some cases there has been long-term nerve damage.

"There's the question being asked if there might be long-term effects," Morgan said. "They are working on vaccines. But they don't have a good treatment yet."

At this time, Morgan said it might be a good idea for women who are pregnant or considering becoming pregnant to avoid traveling to areas impacted by Zika virus. However, for others, Morgan said the risk is small.

"It can be very low symptoms, kind of like a cold with a low grade fever," Morgan said. "Only one in five people have symptoms at all. A lot of people have had this and don't even know it."

Wyoming residents are at a low risk for contracting the virus, but in today's world of global traveling, there is a real chance that the virus can be spread to the state at some point. With 40 million U.S. travelers to areas affected by Zika each year, the CDC warns that there will be more cases of Zika in the United States in coming months. Transmitted by mosquitos, the virus could take a hold in the state under the right conditions, Morgan said. So, while it's not a huge concern at this time, it may become more of one as time goes on.

"It is something that hasn't been recognized in Wyoming yet," Morgan said. "There's a likelihood we'll see cases in the southern United States."

For those traveling during spring break and in the coming months, there are some precautions to take. If you're traveling to one of the countries where Zika has been reported, make sure to use mosquito repellant and mosquito nets are also another form of protection.

"Be aware it is in temperate climates," Morgan said. "Try to avoid being bitten by mosquitos."

The CDC offers the following tips for preventing mosquito bites

  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants.
  • Stay in places with air conditioning or that use window and door screens to keep mosquitoes outside.
  • Sleep under a mosquito bed net if you are overseas or outside and are not able to protect yourself from mosquito bites.
  • Use Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellents. When used as directed, EPA-registered insect repellents are proven safe and effective, even for pregnant and breast-feeding women.
    • Always follow the product label instructions
    • Reapply insect repellent as directed.
    • Do not spray repellent on the skin under clothing.
    • If you are also using sunscreen, apply sunscreen before applying insect repellent.
  • If you have a baby or child:
    • Do not use insect repellent on babies younger than 2 months of age.
    • Dress your child in clothing that covers arms and legs, or
    • Cover crib, stroller, and baby carrier with mosquito netting.
    • Do not apply insect repellent onto a child's hands, eyes, mouth, and cut or irritated skin.
    • Adults: Spray insect repellent onto your hands and then apply to a child's face.
  • Treat clothing and gear with permethrin or purchase permethrin-treated items.
    • Treated clothing remains protective after multiple washings. See product information to learn how long the protection will last.
    • If treating items yourself, follow the product instructions carefully.
    • Do NOT use permethrin products directly on skin. They are intended to treat clothing.

As always if you have any concerns about your travel plans and are pregnant or considering becoming pregnant speak with your health provider.