Zika virus is spreading quickly throughout Brazil, and on Monday, the World Health Organization declared a ‘public health emergency of international concern.’
The outbreak also prompted the Canadian Blood Services to urge recent travellers to affected areas to avoid giving blood for now, as little is known about the virus. The virus has already been found in some Canadians returning from affected areas.
It’s a mild flu-like virus with no vaccine and none coming anytime soon. Symptoms can include fever, headache, conjunctivitis (pink eye) and rash, along with joint and muscle pain.
What sets the Zika virus apart from others is the effect it has on an unborn child. Thousands of pregnant woman have been infected with the virus, putting their babies at risk of being born with microcephaly. Those woman are locals in the affected areas, but also travelers who are now returning home to countries like Canada.
Travelers should always use caution when heading into areas where mosquitos can transmit disease, says Dr. Darin Cherniwchan, from the Fraser Valley Travel Clinic in Chilliwack.
“The media frenzy regarding Zika virus is warranted,” he said.
However, the risk shouldn’t deter the average, non-pregnant traveller from visiting the affected areas, he added. There are always risks like this that travellers should prepare for, and Zika virus is no different.
“This current health alert is an important reminder that all travellers to tropical and sub-tropical locales require expert pre-travel advise including effective and scientifically proven personal protective measures against all insect-borne illness including not only Zika virus but also dengue fever, chikingunya, Japanese encephaitis and other exotic viral illnesses,” Cherniwchan says.
There is also no vaccine “on the immediate horizon,” the doctor said, and it’s not likely within the next decade.
The incubation period is three to 12 days, with the virus present in the blood for the maximum of one week. Often, medical intervention for the virus is not needed, as complications are very rare. Most of those infected do not even show symptoms.
It was first noticed in Central and South America, and Mexico, in early 2015, but the virus was initially identified in 1947 in the Zika Forest in Uganda among Rheses macaques. The first reported human case was in 1952.
The outbreak provides a good reminder for travellers to protect themselves from all known viruses before heading to affected countries, Cherniwchan said.
The Public Health Agency of Canada gives this advice:
“It is recommended that pregnant women and those considering becoming pregnant discuss their travel plans with their health care provider to assess their risk and consider postponing travel to areas where the Zika virus is circulating in the Americas. If travel cannot be postponed then strict mosquito bite prevention measures should be followed to protect themselves against bites.”
There is no risk of an outbreak in Canada, as the mosquitos who spread the virus do not, and cannot, live in this country’s climates.
Blood donation rules
Canadian Blood Services is monitoring the situation closely, and revising their eligibility criteria for donors “to mitigate the risk of the virus entering the Canadian blood supply.”
They are implementing a new deferral period for blood, cord blood and stem cell donors who have recently travelled to locations outside of Canada, the United States and Europe.
“We are working with Health Canada and Héma-Québec to determine the length of the deferral period. In the meantime, we are asking all potential donors who have recently travelled to places outside of those mentioned to postpone their appointment and rebook one month following their return to Canada.”
Because they expect their donations to drop, they are asking those who have never donated, or who haven’t donated recently, to consider visiting a blood clinic or drive near them.
Chilliwack is home to a regular blood clinic.
“New donors are critical to maintaining a healthy blood supply and ensuring patients continue to receive the safe and effective blood and blood products they need,” CBS said.