[WATCH] Health authorities reassure that Zika virus not transmittable between humans

Health authorities caution travellers as Zika virus epidemic continues to spread in the Americas • WHO warns virus is likely to spread across nearly all of the Americas

Health promotion director Charmaine Gauci • Photo by Ray Attard
Health promotion director Charmaine Gauci • Photo by Ray Attard
Health authorities reassure that Zika virus not transmittable between humans

A viral disease which is quickly spreading in the Americas has left thousands of babies being born with underdeveloped brain. Some countries have even advised women not to get pregnant.

Known as the Zika virus, the infection is transmitted primarily by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes but also by Aedes albopictus mosquitoes.

These mosquitoes are widely distributed in the Americas and hence it is likely to continue to spread. 

The infection, which causes symptoms including mild fever, conjunctivitis and headache, has already been found in 21 countries in the Caribbean, North and South America. No treatment or vaccine is available.

The Maltese health authorities said that the Aedes albopictus mosquito species is established in many parts of the European Union, primarily around the Mediterranean. However the risk of transmission of Zika virus infection is extremely low in the EU during winter season as the climatic conditions are not suitable for the activity of this mosquito. 

In her comments to Malta Today, health promotion director Charmaine Gauci emphasized that the virus is not transmitted directly from one person to another, and that the risk of infection in Europe was currently low.

“The risk rises only when Maltese people travel to the countries where the virus is prevalent, and if they get bitten by a mosquito while they’re there.”

Gauci pointed out that should that same person get bitten by the particular mosquito again in Europe, then the virus could potentially spread, which meant that the best advice for travellers in the region, was to take the necessary precautions to avoid contact with the insect.

She further explained that the virus had been around for a very long time, but that the virus had spread rapidly and more widely in recent months.

What are the symptoms?

About one in five people infected with Zika virus become ill. The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain, or conjunctivitis (red eyes).

Other common symptoms include muscle pain and headache with symptoms lasting from few days to a week. Severe disease requiring hospitalization is uncommon and deaths are rare.

“In the Americas they have noted a link between Zika virus infection during pregnancy and adverse pregnancy outcomes,” the health authorities said.

Gauci also explained that the latest outbreak was also being linked to paralysis and cases of microcephaly in children born to infected mothers, but that studies had still proved inconclusive.

“Pregnant women, or women planning to get pregnant soon have however been advised not to visit the area,” she cautioned, stressing that the link between these instances had not yet been confirmed.

Which are the countries affected?

The Maltese health authorities are in direct contact with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the Health Security of the Commission to follow the situation. Travel associated cases have been reported in the EU in people who travelled to affected areas.

El Salvador, Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil, Suriname, French Guiana, Honduras, Mexico, Panama and Martinique are currently experiencing a rapidly evolving Zika virus epidemic with an increasing or widespread transmission.

Bolivia, Guyana, Ecuador, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Barbados, Saint Martin and Haiti have only reported sporadic transmission.

Travellers to affected areas are advised to: 

  • Take individual protective measures to prevent mosquito bites.
  • Travellers who have immune disorders or severe chronic illnesses should consult their doctor before travelling.
  • Pregnant women and women who are trying to become pregnant, and who plan to travel to the areas experiencing transmission of Zika virus, should discuss their travel plans with their healthcare providers and consider postponing their travel to affected areas, especially to areas with increasing or widespread transmission.
  • Individual protective measures to prevent mosquito bites should be applied all day long, especially during mid-morning and late afternoon to dusk, which are the periods of highest mosquito activity.
  • Travellers showing symptoms compatible with dengue, chikungunya or Zika virus disease within three weeks after returning from an affected area should contact their healthcare provider.
  • Pregnant women who have travelled to areas with Zika virus transmission should mention their travel during antenatal visits in order to be assessed and monitored appropriately.

How to avoid mosquito bites:

  • Using mosquito repellents in accordance with the instructions indicated on the product label. DEET based repellent use is not recommended in children under three months of age.
  • Wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants, especially during the hours of highest mosquito activity.
  • Using mosquito nets, whether they are impregnated or not, is essential if accommodation is not adequately screened or air-conditioned.

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