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US Mass. health officials continue warnings about Zika


Going on a tropical getaway this winter?

As vacationers prepare to flock to Caribbean beaches to escape the Massachusetts winter, state health officials are reminding them to be vigilant of the Zika virus.

“It’s not that I don’t want people to enjoy their vacations or get away from the New England winter, but we felt it was important to do something to keep it in the public consciousness, particularly for women who are pregnant or couples who may get pregnant,” said Dr. Catherine Brown, deputy state epidemiologist for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Zika, a virus that can be passed to humans through the bite of an infected mosquito, can also be passed from a pregnant woman to her baby, causing severe birth defects. A person can also contract the virus through sexual contact with an infected person. Zika is most prevalent in tropical regions, including much of the Caribbean and Latin America, where the species of mosquitoes that carry the virus are most common.

Many people who contract the Zika virus, Brown said, don’t even know they have it. Zika can remain present in the body for months, making it possible to unknowingly pass it to a sexual partner. Medical experts recommend that women who have potentially been exposed to Zika abstain from having unprotected sex or trying to become pregnant for eight weeks, Brown said. Since the virus remains present longer in men, the recommendation is that men who may have been exposed wait six months before having unprotected sex.

“One of the things that’s been frustrating for healthcare providers is we are still learning a lot about the virus,” Brown said.

Zika symptoms include fever, rash, conjunctivitis, muscle aches, joint aches and headaches, although many people who have Zika don’t experience any symptoms.

Due to limited lab testing capacity, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has strict guidelines on who should get tested for Zika, with pregnant women and people exhibiting Zika symptoms getting priority.

There is no specific Zika medication or vaccine.

As of Dec. 28, there have been 4,593 confirmed travel-related cases of Zika in the United States, including 114 in Massachusetts, according to the CDC. There have been 216 locally acquired cases of Zika nationally – 210 in Miami-Dade County, Florida, and six in Brownsville, Texas.

The U.S. territory of Puerto Rico has had more than 33,000 documented cases of Zika.

On Dec. 9, after 45 days had passed between the last Zika transmission in Miami, the CDC eased its travel advisories to the city. It still recommends that pregnant women consider postponing travel to Miami-Dade County. The CDC issued the same designation for Brownsville, Texas, Dec. 14.

“Pregnant women who live or have been to this area should continue to be evaluated for Zika exposure during their prenatal visits to prevent the devastating effects Zika can cause in their infants,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said in a statement.

In infants and fetuses, Zika can cause a severe brain defect and microcephaly, a condition in which the child’s head is abnormally small.

Health officials say it’s important to keep Zika in the public consciousness, particularly as many gear up for tropical vacations this winter. Precautions include limiting exposure to mosquitoes and using insect repellent.

“Our basic message is that if you or your partner is pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant, please consider postponing travel to areas where Zika virus is spreading,” Massachusetts DPH commissioner Monica Bharel said. “We recognize that many residents travel in the winter months to warmer areas where Zika may be circulating. If you must travel to those areas, take every precaution that you can to avoid mosquito bites while you’re there.”

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IMAGE: DC Mosquito Squad



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