As of March 30, there are 312 travel-associated cases of Zika virus infections in the United States. Twenty-seven of those were in pregnant women whose generous partner traveled to Zika-affected regions and brought the disease back as a semen-delivered souvenir.
Zika, the global disease du jour — what the heck is it you ask and why should you care? Well, many college students are returning from spring break and there is a likelihood some may have been in those fabulous tropical destinations currently on the list of areas with ongoing transmission, which stretch from Mexico to Paraguay and the Caribbean to the South Pacific. I’m sure they applied ample sunscreen and always used condoms just as Nurse Holly advises, but we can’t be sure they practiced good insect precautions like using a DEET insect repellent consistently, and the Zika virus is a disease that is primarily transmitted by the bite of an infected mosquito.
Returning U.S. travelers may be on the cusp of developing symptoms of fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes, which occur within two weeks of being bitten by an infected mosquito, or they may be like four out of five who don’t experience any symptoms. Okay, so this doesn’t sound like a very big deal to you; however, it is a very big deal to pregnant women.
In an institution of higher learning and therefore expected higher-level thinking, community health is important to all of us all the time.
Zika has been associated with microcephaly in babies, a condition where newborns heads are smaller than expected. This condition can lead to decreased brain development, seizures, hearing loss, developmental delays, vision loss and feeding difficulties. Oh, this still doesn’t concern you because you are a college student and not interested in parenting right now? Think about it. If you develop symptoms and are bitten by a mosquito, that mosquito can move on to bite a pregnant female, making you indirectly responsible for these anomalies. In an institution of higher learning and therefore expected higher-level thinking, community health is important to all of us all the time. The most prudent advice is to monitor for any signs and symptoms after recent foreign travel and report the symptoms and travel to a health care provider immediately. You should continue to use a 30-35 percent DEET insect repellent for a few weeks after your return from a Zika area to ensure that even if you don’t exhibit symptoms, you don’t contribute to the spread of the disease. Additionally, you should use condoms for two months after your return to prevent sexual transmission or abstain … I hear you laughing, I’m serious. The first case of sexual transmission of Zika was identified in California, March 25. At this time, only male to female sexual transmission has been documented.
If conception is in your near future, the current recommendations are to delay conception until eight weeks past you or your partner’s travel to a Zika area. The California Department of Public Health website has a “Zika — Questions & Answers” link that can answer every variation of pregnancy question you can think of that was updated April 1.
Surveillance testing is currently ongoing for those with symptoms of Zika and traveling to a Zika endemic area. Testing may also be considered for pregnant females who have travelled to an affected region or whose partner has travelled to affected areas. Any testing is done in collaboration with the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department.
UCSB students are renowned global thinkers and with that comes increased global travel for study abroad programs, research, volunteering and personal travel. Student Health offers comprehensive travel consultations to prepare our students for global travel and the associated risks, whether they be communicable disease, food/waterborne illness, vector-borne disease or safety-related. To book an appointment simply visit the UCSB Student Health website, log in to the Gateway and send a secure message for a travel booking.
Holly Smith is the Infection Control Coordinator at UCSB Student Health.