Let’s talk about Zika in Alabama

Charley Gaines

Hartselle Enquirer


The words “Zika virus” have been thrown around the U.S. like dust in a sand storm causing fear and, frankly, deception about the severity and other details about the illness. It’s time to clear up known facts about the virus.

Dr. Scott Harris is the assistant state public health officer in Alabama. He is over seven counties, primarily in North Alabama, for the state Department of Public Health, and has been on top of the Zika emergence in Alabama since it first reared its head in the state.

“Morgan County was actually the first county in Alabama with a known case of Zika this year,” Harris said. “All the cases in the state, though, have been contracted and carried back from other countries.” Twenty-five people around Alabama have tested positive for Zika, but all of the known cases don’t originate in the U.S. The virus has come back from other countries with the travelers who went out of the States. Alabama’s Health Department has strict guidelines on the information that can be shared about the Zika patients, which is basically nothing. The only thing officials and physicians are allowed to disclose is the county where a Zika infected Alabamian lives due to privacy reasons.

The Zika virus is most often spread through mosquitoes. There are just two types of mosquitoes that actually spread the virus. The most common is the Aedes aegypti. It is found mainly in tropical and subtropical climates throughout the world and lives year round in those environments. The insect not only spreads Zika, but is a carrier of yellow and Dengue fevers, which are more severe when contracted. The insect is “a small, dark mosquito with white lyre shaped markings and banded legs,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Zika, Dengue fever and yellow fever can also be spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito’s cousin, the Aedes albopictus. The albopictus is more prevalent and far reaching in the U.S. than the aegypti, but Harris said the latter is less efficient at spreading the illnesses. There are no known vaccines for any of the illnesses the mosquitoes spread.

Danny Lopez, a former Hartsellian, took his family to Guatemala six years ago to share God’s Word and His love with some of the country’s residents. Danny said about three years ago he contracted Dengue fever from one of the Aedes mosquitoes in the country, and he emphasized how bad the experience was for him.

“I had a high fever for about seven full days,” Lopez said via email. “The lowest I could get my fever down to was around 102.1. The highest it got was around 104.7. Symptoms were that high fever, headaches and body aches. You could only treat the symptoms, not the actual disease.”

Unfortunately, earlier this year one of the infected mosquitoes hit Lopez again, this time spreading Zika.

“Two weeks ago, I was in the lower region of Guatemala that is extremely hot. Our home here is about 5,000 ft. above sea level, but I believe I contracted Zika while in this lower region. I have not had any fever or body aches. My symptom is just a rash throughout my extremities and torso. It has been two weeks now, and I still have the rash. It itches some, but not that bad.” The difference in his two experiences with illness spread to him from the Aedes mosquito sit almost on opposite ends of the spectrum.

“About 80 percent of people who actually have Zika don’t know it because they don’t show symptoms,” said Harris. “The other 20 percent have more mild symptoms. The CDC website says those symptoms take about two weeks to incubate and Harris said they usually subside within a couple of days, almost like a cold.

“People don’t carry the disease with them after infection. It runs it’s course like other illnesses and then it’s done,” said Harris. “We do tell people to get tested if they’ve been to tropical countries where Zika is spread if they show symptoms like fever and rash.”

Mosquitoes aren’t the only culprits responsible for Zika’s spread. Humans also have the ability to do so. Someone infected with the virus can spread it to sexual partners via intercourse.

“We’ve given doctors around Alabama guidelines when handling possible cases,” Harris explained. “Physicians been told to instruct women who have shown symptoms and traveled to those countries to wait eight weeks after their symptoms subside to have intercourse. Men who have shown symptoms are different because viruses have proven to stay in semen longer. We tell men who show symptoms to abstain from intercourse about six months to make sure the virus has fully run its course and won’t spread.”

Humans can also indirectly spread the virus via mosquitoes, which is the issue in Florida. The Florida Department of Health released the exact location in one neighborhood of Miami where Zika has spread among residents. The CDC gave guidance for people living in the area and for people who have visited the area any time after June 15, which are the guidelines they give everyone who might have come in contact with the virus. The main concern applies to pregnant women, women who may be pregnant and their partners.

While symptoms of Zika usually don’t show up, and even if they do are mild, the recent scare and the reason “Zika virus” has become the alarm that sounds when it’s detected is because it was recently connected to birth defects, two specifically, one that is more severe.

The Mayo Clinic defines microcephaly as “a rare neurological condition in which an infant’s head is significantly smaller than the heads of other children of the same age and sex… usually the results of the brain developing abnormally in the womb or not growing as it should after birth.”

The second potential birth defect that has been linked to Zika is Guillain Barre syndrome. The Mayo Clinic says the “syndrome is a rare disorder in which your body’s immune system attacks your nerves. Weakness and tingling in your extremities are usually the first symptoms.” The CDC reports people recover from GBS. The government agency also wants to make it known that the current hype came out of the Public Health Emergency of International Concern put out by the World Health Organization on Feb. 1 of this year. The alert was issued because there were clusters of microcephaly and other neurological disorders in some areas affected by Zika.

The birth defect is the main cause of the recent cause for nervousness and radars up around the U.S. and the world for positive Zika cases. The CDC’s latest reports show 16 out of a total of 1,962 in the U.S. are liveborn infants with birth defects that were reported to the U.S. Zika Pregnancy Registry as of Aug. 11. The Registry also reports five pregnancy losses with birth defects.

For those in the Morgan County area still nervous about the Zika virus, Harris said, “Once someone has been infected, they are generally well within a few days, and as far as we know, they are immune to repeat infection. There are a small number of cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome that have been reported with Zika, but this occurs with many other types of infections also and is probably not caused by Zika per se.”

Harris suggests two website for those searching for more information on Zika. He suggests http://www.cdc/gov/zika/geo/ and http://www.adph.org/mosquito/. Now that the information is out there, solid information instead of just the words “Zika virus,” Alabama residents can ease up a bit and be less fearful of the dreaded Zika. It’s not an ideal situation for those who show signs, but it’s a small population who show signs and an even smaller population that have issues with their pregnancy. For those who still harbor concerns, as with anything, get information. Prevention for anything is information retention and application.

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