What is Zika virus?

by: Dr. Ernie Ward


Zika virus was first identified in 1947 in Uganda’s Zika Forest. If you’re wondering, “Zika” means “overgrown” and the forest is home to The Uganda Virus Research Institute of Entebbe. Scientists were conducting research on yellow fever in primates when they stumbled upon this stubborn mosquito-bite fever. They largely discounted Zika virus as a serious threat because the majority of victims (80%) didn’t develop significant illness.

Signs of Zika virus infection include fever, joint pain and muscle aches, rashes, headaches and red eyes (conjunctivitis). Most people recover within a week without hospitalization and death is extremely rare. Zika virus is directly related to yellow fever, dengue, West Nile and Japanese encephalitis virus. That is not a nice family tree.

How is Zika virus spread?

Zika virus is spread through the bite of a mosquito; Aedes africanus, Ae. aegypti and Ae. albopticus have been identified as carriers, and other species may also transmit the disease. Aegypti and Albopticus are found throughout the southeastern U.S. and as far north as Connecticut. For decades, Zika virus remained relatively confined to Africa and Asia. Cases began emerging in the Americas and Europe within the past five years with a spike in North and South American cases over the past six months.

If it’s not fatal, why all the fuss?

The biggest concern with Zika virus is it appears to cause a serious and life-threatening birth defect known asmicrocephaly (small head). If a pregnant female contracts Zika virus from an infected mosquito bite, the fetal brain could become underdeveloped, resulting in death or severe neurological deformation.

Zika virus has the ability to spread quickly. The first case of Zika virus in Brazil was identified eight months ago. Since then, over 3,500 cases of microcephaly have been reported. While we’re still unsure of the exact link between Zika virus and microcephaly, this rapid spread has officials troubled.

Scientists are also worried because there’s so much we don’t know about Zika virus and the potential harm it may cause to humans or animals. Even though we’ve known about Zika virus for nearly 70 years, extensive research is just beginning.

Can dogs or cats get Zika virus?

We don’t know. At this time there is no evidence that dogs or cats can transmit or contract Zika virus. The studies haven’t been done. There is evidence that primates and humans can become infected and transmit the disease through mosquito bites. Some research suggests Zika virus may be transmitted through male sexual contact and that rodents can harbor or transmit the virus.

What can I do to protect my pets from Zika virus?

Mosquito control is the best defense at this time against Zika virus. Unfortunately for us, Aedes mosquitoes are incredibly tough critters. They are aggressive daytime feeders and prefer people over most animals and thrive indoors or outside. The eggs of Aedes can survive dry, cold conditions for over a year and hatch into larvae as soon as they contact water. Remove any standing water from flower pots, bowls or buckets to help eliminate mosquito breeding areas.

Even if you live in cold regions, the larvae of these mosquitoes can remain dormant for months during cool weather and emerge as soon as temperatures increase. When water and warmth are present, the entire Aedesmosquito life cycle – egg to adult – can occur in as few as 10 days. Told you they were tough.

There is no vaccine or treatment for Zika virus yet. The disease isn’t widespread in North America and doesn’t pose a threat in the U.S. at this time. The CDC is collaborating with worldwide infectious disease agencies and governments to reduce mosquito populations and acquire answers about Zika virus. For now, stay tuned to health alerts, and protect your dogs and cats against other mosquito-borne infections such as heartworm disease.

If you are pregnant, you should avoid travel to areas with known Zika virus. The CDC currently advises pregnant women to avoid travel to Mexico, Puerto Rico and parts of Central America and South America. The CDC Zika site is an excellent resource to keep updated on Zika virus.

Editors Note: Dr. Ernie Ward is internationally known for improving veterinary medical standards, creating a higher quality of life for animals, and promoting healthier habits for pets and people. Learn more at www.drernieward.com