Much of the world is freaking out over the Zika virus disease, but should we? Monica Majors assesses the situation from Vietnam’s standing.

On a recent flight back from the US, I was bombarded with signs about the mosquito-transmission of the virus. News reports seem fewer and farther between than previous months, but recently an expat Facebook group in Vietnam posted three links, back-to-back, on the subject. As such, I have now adopted the delightful musk of DEET, and even carry an extra spray bottle in my purse.

Transmission

The virus is primarily spread through mosquitoes, technically only through the females of the Aedes specie of the hematophagous buzzers. It can also be transferred sexually. Most infected people show little or no symptoms, and may not even feel the need to visit the doctor. Rarely fatal, the most common symptoms include red eyes, skin rash, fever and pain in the joints. Overall the virus passes with mild ailments over the course of several days to a week. Currently there is no vaccine, but it is believed that after being infected, one is unlikely to contract the virus again.

Sounds mild? Well, it can be, when contained within a male population. Even still, Zika has been linked to developing the neurological disorder Guillain-Barré syndrome. Of note. however, are the potential health impacts among the pregnant population. Contracting the virus while expecting a child has serious birth defect implications, specifically to the brain and head.

Taking it Seriously
Central and South America are currently the most concentrated zones for Zika. Between October 2013 and March 2014, more than 30,000 cases were estimated in French Polynesia, according to Dr Stephen Berger, an expert on infectious diseases. Reuters also reported that between February and April 2016, Brazil registered 91,387 likely cases of the virus. With first-ever human cases reported in 1952, the virus has most recently skyrocketed to the forefront of the media, grabbing more than its fair share of attention from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Pasteur Institute, largely due to the linked birth defects, specifically microcephaly. Brazil is the hardest hit, with 4,908 cases as of late April 2016, reports Reuters. By comparison, in the same month, Deputy Health Minister Nguyen Thanh Long confirmed the first two cases of the virus in Vietnam.

Much of the western hemisphere is fighting it on the front lines. US President Obama has proposed to Congress a US$1.9 billion be found for emergency funding to combat Zika. The Major League Baseball Association relocated its exhibition games due to take place in Puerto Rico after players expressed their fears over transmission of the virus (Puerto Rico has nearly 800 confirmed cases). Some nations are even considering pulling their Olympians from the summer Rio games, as the country’s populous southeast registered the most diagnoses of any region, with 35,505 likely cases according to Reuters. Others, like South Korea, have rolled out uniforms covering as much of the body as functionally possible, and include built-in repellant to dispel mosquitos.

While there is not yet an outbreak of Zika in Asia, the CDC does warn, “Zika virus will likely continue to spread to new areas.” Unfortunately, Vietnam’s trifecta of a dense population, sexual activity and sometimes less than hygienic practices, seem to offer a pretty easy in-road for the virus. This is, of course, pretty speculative. I spoke with Infectious Disease Specialist Dr Serge Gradstein at Ho Chi Minh City’s Family Medical Practice…

Expert Advice
Dr Gradstein met me outside the clinic in a maelstrom of bug spray. “It’s not news to have a few cases,” he tells me calmly. “We’re seeing and hearing a lot about the potential of the virus because of its strong concentration in Brazil and the associated cases of fetal defects. The eyes of the medical community are trained on Central and South America at the moment, not Asia.” I lower my spray can. It seems there have been only a handful of tested cases for the virus here in Ho Chi Minh City, and, perhaps, the clinics are happy for a much needed break from such viruses after last year’s outbreak of Dengue Fever (a reported 40,000 cases within the first nine months of 2015).

“The concern over Zika is relative to transmission in pregnant women,” adds Dr Gradstein. “While we don’t yet know how long after exposure someone can transmit the disease, the general rule is to keep a safety period of two months from exposure. The virus can live in semen for more than a month.”. He concludes our discussion with this advice: “If you are ever sick while pregnant, you must see a doctor, and be sure to avoid exposed areas while pregnant.” He’s not the only one saying this. The CDC and most embassies have such warnings, and will highly advise you travel or work elsewhere if planning to head into the mozzie’s den.

Dress Not to Impress
The above information is all about what happens when you’ve contracted the virus, but an “ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”, said Benjamin Franklin. Avoiding transmission from an infected male during intercourse is easy – just wear a condom. If there wasn’t already enough reasons to wear one, Zika is another. All that’s left is the daunting task of avoiding mosquito bites.

Much of this is within our control: wear long sleeves and pants and use mosquito repellant that contains at least 20 percent DEET (or lemon and eucalyptus oil if you prefer an all-natural version). Shower regularly after excessive sweating – mosquitoes carrying Malaria are more drawn to those who have had sweat on their body for a day or two.

Some of this is, unfortunately, outside of our control. Mosquitoes are drawn to carbon dioxide emissions, which we all breathe out; some of us more than others, especially pregnant women or larger individuals. Additionally, a 2004 study revealed that type O blood types are 20 percent more likely to be bitten over type B, and even more likely than those with type A blood. Drinking beer in copious amounts is also linked to increased skeeter attention, either because of the increased body temperature or increased output of carbon dioxide while intoxicated.

Simply put, protect yourselves. In Vietnam it’s a bit of a watch-and-wait mentality, but you can still take all necessary precautions to be part of the prevention, not the transmission.