I keep reading these stories about the risks of Zika virus. It seems there is serious concern that the United States could face a big problem with it, especially now that cases have been discovered in Florida. I didn’t understand much about the disease or its risks, so I interviewed an OB-GYN friend of mine to get her thoughts for my latest newspaper column.
Most of the news leading up to the Summer Olympic Games has been negative. No issue has plagued Brazil like the outbreak of the Zika virus.
While the virus threatens the thousands of female athletes headed to Rio to compete, more than just Olympians should be concerned.
Brazil and other South American and Caribbean countries affected by Zika virus
Brazil’s first cases of Zika virus were detected in March 2015. Last week, the World Health Organization reported 165,907 suspected and confirmed Zika virus disease cases in Brazil in 2016. 42 countries have confirmed Zika virus disease, including countries throughout South America and the Caribbean. The Miami Herald reported Monday that 14 cases have been diagnosed in a neighborhood north of downtown Miami.
Symptoms of Zika virus
Only a small fraction of people who contract the Zika virus develop symptoms. Illness can manifest with symptoms such as a rash, joint and muscle pains, fatigue, headaches, nausea and diarrhea. While certainly not life threatening, a symptomatic Olympian would struggle to compete with these symptoms until they resolved a few days later.
Pregnancy risks with Zika virus
Pregnancy-related complications are the much larger concern with the virus. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed 29% of pregnancies have shown ultrasound evidence of birth defects, such as microcephaly (abnormally small head resulting from abnormal brain development), intrauterine growth restriction and fetal death. The United States Olympic Committee has advised its female athletes of childbearing age to carefully consider these risks.
Currently there is no specific treatment for Zika virus, and no vaccine exists. Efforts to decrease the risk center around prevention.
Transmission of Zika virus
Zika virus is mainly spread through mosquito bites and sexual intercourse, so efforts to limit the spread of the virus address these forms of transmission. While it raised many eyebrows, the hundreds of thousands of condoms that will be given to Olympic athletes aim to at least minimize the spread of Zika virus through sexual contact.
The risks of Zika virus to female athletes
Dr. Bridget Williamson, an obstetrician-gynecologist with East Cooper OB/GYN outside of Charleston, South Carolina, points out that all female athletes and active women should be aware of Zika virus as well. She emphasizes prevention and planning.
For example, a woman in her 20s might want to get pregnant soon. If she really wants to run a marathon in Miami this fall, she might put her efforts to conceive on hold until months after the race.
The CDC recommends that women currently pregnant avoid travel to affected areas altogether.
Steps to take to prevent contracting Zika virus
Even females not planning to get pregnant should understand the risks and take steps to prevent contracting the virus. High school and college aged girls traveling with their teams for tournaments should exercise caution.
First of all, take steps to avoid mosquito bites. Wear long sleeves and long pants. Use insect repellent. Sleep in hotels or places with air conditioning or door and window screens to keep mosquitoes out.
Also take steps to decrease risk through sexual contact. Dr. Williamson says that women should recognize that they can get Zika virus through sex with their infected partners. People can spread the virus before developing symptoms or after symptoms subside. Women could avoid having sex when traveling in these areas, or they should use birth control if they do have sex. Dr. Williamson encourages women to consider using two forms of birth control, such as condoms and oral contraceptives or an intrauterine device (IUD).
We will hear a lot about the risks of Zika virus to the female Olympic athletes over the next three weeks. Young female athletes at all levels need to be aware of the risks too.
Are you concerned about Zika virus? What steps would you take to avoid contracting the disease? Please share your thoughts below!
A modified version of the article appears as my sports medicine column in the August 2, 2016 issue of The Post and Courier.
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Regional Zika Epidemiological Update (Americas) July 29, 2016. PAHO WHO.