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Researchers at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health report that antibodies from people who survived Dengue fever may help defeat the Zika virus, raising hopes that an effective therapeutic treatment may be developed soon.

The findings were published in the July/August issue of mBio, the journal of the American Society of Microbiology. The researchers are already moving forward with additional research.

The outbreak of the Zika virus has generated a worldwide conversation about the illness that spreads to people through mosquito bites. The virus can cause a rare defect in babies called microcephaly and has become a global health emergency. Naturally, with all the coverage, we’ve heard employees, friends and family, and the general public wonder if we could see Zika in North Carolina soon.

WHAT EXACTLY IS ZIKA, HOW IS IT SPREAD AND WHERE DID IT COME FROM?

The Zika virus is related to the West Nile virus, and it has not caused serious illness or complications in the past. Infected Aedes species mosquitoes spread the virus to people through their bites. The Zika virus can also be spread from a person who has the virus through sexual contact.

WHAT DOES THE VIRUS DO, AND WHY HAS THERE BEEN SO MUCH MEDIA ATTENTION LATELY?

The infection causes mild symptoms, including fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). The illness is usually minor and symptoms can last from a few days to a week.

For pregnant women, the Zika virus can be much more serious because it can spread from a pregnant woman to her unborn baby. An outbreak of the Zika virus in Brazil led to many reports of poor pregnancy outcomes or women having babies with microcephaly. Estimates of babies born with microcephaly in Brazil vary. However, the number currently reported (4,100) is greater than expected.

WHAT HAPPENS IF A BABY GETS THIS DEFECT?

The following problems are linked with microcephaly:

CAN WE GET ZIKA IN THE US? WHERE IS IT FOUND?

Currently, the virus is mostly found in South American countries and tropical islands, such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In May 2015, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) issued an alert about the first confirmed Zika virus infection in Brazil.

Because the areas where Zika virus transmission is common will change over time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will update travel notices as information becomes available. Check the CDC travel website for the most up-to-date recommendations.

HAVE PEOPLE BEEN AFFECTED BY ZIKA IN NORTH CAROLINA?

On Friday, February 19, 2016, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services announced the first case of the Zika virus in North Carolina. Since then, 18 more North Carolinians have contracted the virus, though none got the virus in North Carolina.

The mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus – yellow fever mosquitoes – have been extinct in North Carolina for the last 30 years.

WHAT IS THE TREATMENT FOR ZIKA, AND HOW CAN WE AVOID GETTING IT?

Although the UNC research holds promise, there is currently no treatment for this condition. Until we know more, the CDC recommends that:

Pregnant women should postpone travel to areas where the Zika virus is active.

Pregnant women who must travel to one of these areas should talk to their doctors and take these steps to avoid mosquito bites during the trip.

Women trying to become pregnant should consult with their doctors before traveling to these areas.

As a routine precaution, take steps to prevent mosquito bites, such as using mosquito repellent and wearing loose, long-sleeved shirts and long pants when outdoors. If you or your sexual partner has traveled in an area with Zika or you have had the virus, take precautions as recommended by the CDC.

See the full list of recommendations on the CDC website.

WHAT ARE WE DOING TO PREVENT THE VIRUS FROM SPREADING?

As of now, testing for the virus is done at the CDC. To stop the virus from spreading, North Carolina will soon be one of 12 states in the U.S. that can test for the virus locally.

In the future, it is likely that measures to get rid of mosquitoes will be helpful. More research is still needed to determine the best steps.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina will provide coverage of any testing and monitoring recommended by the CDC and/or the North Carolina Department of Health for our members. BCBSNC recommends using in-network labs for Zika testing.

HOW CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

Check out the CDC website to learn more.

Dr. Larry Wu

About Dr. Larry Wu

Larry Wu, MD is a regional medical director for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina and provides consultative services for employee health solutions, prevention, chronic disease, care management, medical expense and utilization management. He is a family physician with over 20 years in clinical practice, has served as clinic director in the Indian Health Service, Kaiser Permanente and Duke Family Medicine and currently maintains a part-time clinical practice.

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