The World Health Organization has declared the Zika virus a public health emergency.
The virus, first identified in 1947, is spread by the bite of infected mosquitoes. For most people, it triggers a mild illness involving fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis. However, the recent discovery that the virus can cause a serious birth defect called microcephaly, in addition to other fetal brain abnormalities, has transformed the way global health authorities are viewing Zika.
Debra Gittler, founder and executive director of ConTextos, an educational NGO based in El Salvador, has split her time between El Salvador and Chicago for the past five years. Gittler is pregnant with her first child and has been dealing with the terrifying possibility that she and her unborn child may have been exposed to the virus.
“I was living in El Salvador in January, right when I found out that I was pregnant,” Gittler said.
After reading a New York Times article detailing how the virus was spreading and how it was correlated with the development of microcephaly, Gittler decided it was time to return to Chicago.
“That was the red flag. I literally ended up leaving El Salvador within five days because at that point I was in my first trimester,” she said. “El Salvador was a country that announced that women should postpone getting pregnant for two years. So for me it was the perfect storm of nobody knowing what was going on at an international level and being in a country that clearly had a public health system that wasn’t prepared to respond.”
When Gittler returned to Chicago, the CDC had not yet established a testing protocol for pregnant women who may have been exposed to the virus. After an ultrasound showed the cerebellum of Gittler’s baby wasn’t fully developed, she was “red flagged” as a high-risk pregnancy.
“Because I had just come from El Salvador and there was this disease, I was being looked at sort of under a microscope,” Gittler said. “I was literally the first person that the Erie Family Center at Northwestern [had] with this profile.”
Given the circumstances around her pregnancy, Gittler’s doctors recommended she get ultrasounds every two weeks—a cost her insurance would not cover. In March, Gittler wrote an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune expressing her frustrations with her insurance company.
Gittler speaks about her experiences with host Phil Ponce along with Dr. Allison Arwady, Chief Medical Officer at the Chicago Department of Public Health. Arwady will give us an update on what is now known about the virus and treatment options for those exposed.
"Chicago Tonight" first reported on the Zika virus in February. Below, some basic information about what the virus is and how it's transmitted.
What is Zika virus?
Zika is a mosquito-borne virus that is transmitted via Aedes mosquitoes. It gets its name from its birthplace, Uganda’s Zika Forest. According to the Centers for Disease Control the virus was first discovered in rhesus monkeys in 1947, and then identified in humans in 1952 in Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania.
What are the symptoms?
While most people infected with the virus will not experience symptoms, Zika causes mild symptoms including, fever, muscle and joint aches, and pink eye. These symptoms usually last several days to a week after being bitten by an infected mosquito. According to the CDC, few people develop symptoms that warrant a visit to the hospital and the virus is rarely fatal.
How is the virus transmitted?
Zika virus is transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected mosquito. It can also be transmitted from a mother to child during pregnancy and delivery if the woman is infected around the time she gives birth, according to the CDC.
Several cases have been documented of men passing the virus on to their sexual partners. The CDC is investigating whether the virus can be spread through blood transfusion transmissions after multiple reports of such cases were reported in Brazil.
Can the Zika virus cause birth defects?
Yes, the CDC recently confirmed that Zika virus can be passed on from a pregnant woman to her fetus and can cause serious birth defects, including microcephaly and other severe brain defects.
In a report published in the Journal of Medicine, it stated the causal relationship is supported by evidence that included, “Zika virus infection at times during prenatal development that were consistent with the defects observed; a specific, rare phenotype involving microcephaly and associated brain anomalies in fetuses or infants with presumed or confirmed congenital Zika virus infection; and data that strongly support biologic plausibility, including the identification of Zika virus in the brain tissue of affected fetuses and infants.”
Scientists are still studying the full range of health problems that can occur from Zika virus infection during pregnancy.
Is there a vaccine or treatment for the virus?
No, but you can take precautions to avoid mosquito bites if traveling to an area where Zika virus has been reported.
Mosquitoes bite mostly during the daytime. The CDC advises wearing long sleeves and long pants, using insect repellent, staying indoors with air conditioning and using a mosquito net to prevent bites in the first place.
Related 'Chicago Tonight' content
Feb. 29: The city on Monday morning confirmed the first case of Zika virus. The patient, who was identified as a woman in her 30s, visited Presence Saint Joseph Hospital after returning from a trip to Columbia with symptoms consistent with the virus.
Feb. 2: The World Health Organization declared the Zika virus an international public health emergency. Dr. Allison Arwady, chief medical officer of the Chicago Department of Public Health, joins us to discuss the virus and the risk it poses to Chicago jet-setters.