The Zika virus is not new. The first known case of it infecting a human occurred in Africa in 1952. It is transmitted through a bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito, the same mosquito that spreads dengue and yellow fever. Although the infection itself causes only mild symptoms, a rapidly spreading outbreak in the Americas in 2015, associated with a birth defect and neurological disorders, led the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare the virus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on Feb. 1.
In light of the declaration, the International Mission Board (IMB) Medical Department is following recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to protect missionary personnel serving in countries affected by Zika.
According to a statement from the IMB, the medical department recommended that “pregnant women avoid travel to areas where Zika transmission is occurring and that pregnant women who are unable to avoid travel to areas of Zika virus transmission take the necessary precautions to avoid mosquito bites.”
The IMB is also following recommendations to test all pregnant women, whether they present symptoms or not, who have traveled to areas with active Zika transmission. Non-pregnant travelers from such areas who show symptoms are also to be tested for Zika, dengue or chikungunya virus. The statement affirmed that “all IMB personnel are trained in appropriate steps to prevent mosquito bites.” The WHO Emergency Committee has not placed any restrictions on travel to areas with active transmission of the virus.
Common symptoms include fever, rashes and joint pain, and they only last a few days, according to WHO. However, there has been an observed rise in babies born with microcephaly during the Zika outbreak. These babies are born with a small head and possible poor brain growth which causes developmental disabilities, but no clear causation has been confirmed between Zika and microcephaly. Health authorities are also investigating another possible link between the outbreak and an increase in Guillain-Barré syndrome, in which one’s immune system attacks the peripheral nervous system. Areas with active mosquito-borne transmission of Zika virus include Africa, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, Central America and South America, according to the CDC. There is currently no vaccine for Zika.