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Travellers cautioned after man is diagnosed with Zika virus in SA

South Africans, especially pregnant women, should revisit their travel plans and avoid travelling to countries impacted by the Zika virus unless it is absolutely necessary. This was advised by Government Employees Medical Scheme (GEMS) following the recent diagnoses of a Columbian visitor to Johannesburg. This is the first case of Zika virus infection being imported into South Africa.

Pregnant women in particular who plan on travelling abroad should take every possible precautionary measure against contracting the highly infectious disease, and to ensure that their destination is not one of the countries impacted by the Zika virus (ZIKV).

The National Department of Health (DoH) issued a travel warning to all South Africans visiting countries where the mosquito-transmitted disease is prevalent after the Colombian businessman tested positive for the virus.

The virus has been linked to unborn babies developing microcephaly which can cause an abnormal smallness of the head, which is a congenital condition associated with incomplete brain development.

First case to be imported

This is the first case of Zika virus infection being imported into South Africa and the public should not be alarmed by this case, particularly as it is just a single isolated case diagnosed in a traveller to the country. In addition, the necessary steps have been taken to minimise any risks of the man passing on the virus. However, it remains critical for South Africans who are planning to travel abroad to understand the risks and take precautions against the virus.

Low risk in SA

In its recently distributed Communicable Diseases Communique, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases observed that the risk of Zika virus infection to the general South African population was low. “The virus has not been reported in South Africa over decades. The highest health risk is to the unborn of pregnant women travelling to ZIKV affected areas, and possibly the unborn of pregnant woman that have sexual contact with male partners that are infected with ZIKV due to recent travel to ZIKV affected country,” it said.

The DoH has, meanwhile, announced that an action plan to prevent the importation and spread of Zika virus into the country‚ has been developed through a Multi-sectoral National Outbreak Response Team. This includes the activation of outbreak response teams and the development of prevention and control guidelines.

The Zika virus is transmitted by the Aedes mosquito, which is known to be prevalent in parts of Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Americas.

Symptoms

The time from exposure to symptoms of the virus is not entirely clear, but specialists believe it is likely to be a few days.

The symptoms include skin rashes, muscle and joint pain, headaches and fever and can last for up to seven days. Diagnosis can only be confirmed by blood tests.

Zika facts

  • About one in five people who have been infected with the Zika virus become sick and develop Zika.
  • Common symptoms include joint pain, fever, rash, conjunctivitis (red eyes), muscle pain and headaches.
  • Symptoms normally last for several days to a week.
  • Usually the symptoms are mild and people do not get sick enough to require hospitalisation.
  • Death from the Zika virus infection is rare.
  • The Zika virus stays in the blood for about a week or longer in some cases.
  • There is no vaccine to prevent the Zika infection.
  • There is no medicine to treat the Zika virus.
  • People should treat the symptoms – get rest, drink fluids, avoid taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and take prescribed medicine to relieve fever and pain.
  • To avoid the spreading the virus avoid mosquito bites in the first week of infection, as the Zika virus can be found in the blood and passed on through mosquito bites.

Those travelling to affected areas, including Mexico, Central America, South America, the Caribbean and Puerto Rico, need to be particularly cautious to take precautions against mosquito bites.

If you have to travel to a country where Zika virus is prevalent, you should take precautions such as regularly applying a good-quality DEET-based mosquito repellent. Wear loose fitting clothes and long-sleeved shirts and long pants. Another useful hint is to sleep under a mosquito net treated with insect repellent. Also be sure to visit a travel doctor or clinic beforehand to obtain advice on the risks and on how to avoid contracting the disease.