GPs told to advise patients on Zika virus pregnancy and sexual transmission risk

Pregnant women should tell their GP if they have visited areas affected by the Zika virus so their health can be monitored, experts have warned as the WHO declared a global emergency on the disease.

Aedes mosquito: can transmit Zika virus (Photo: iStock)
Aedes mosquito: can transmit Zika virus (Photo: iStock)

Patients who have visited or plan to travel to South or Central America should also ask GPs if they are concerned about sexual transmission of the Zika virus, Public Health England (PHE) has advised.

The WHO has now declared the spread of the virus – which has been linked to thousands of cases of microcephaly in babies in South America – to be an international emergency.

The Zika virus is mainly transmitted by the bite of an infected female Aedes mosquito, which is common across the world – but does not live in the UK, as the temperature is not consistently high enough for it to breed.

PHE has advised that if a person acquires Zika abroad and becomes ill upon their return, any public health risk is ‘negligible’ because the mosquito does not live in the UK.

Zika virus

Advice published this week by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists says pregnant women recently returned to the UK from countries with an ongoing outbreak of the Zika virus should inform their obstetrician, midwife or GP that they may have been exposed so that they can be monitored and/or tested.

PHE advice says that a ‘single probable case’ of sexual transmission of the Zika virus has been reported, and the virus has been shown to be present in semen, but the risk of sexual transmission is thought to be very low.

PHE recommends that male travellers should use condoms for at least 28 days following return from an active Zika transmission area if they had no symptoms of unexplained fever and rash and for six months following recovery if they did experience symptoms.

Female patients who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant should consider avoiding travel to areas of active Zika transmission at this moment in time, it added.

GP travel advice

There is no vaccine or drug to prevent Zika infection. Travellers should take insect bite avoidance measures to reduce their risk of infection, such as by applying DEET to exposed skin and wearing light cover-up clothing.

A total of six cases have been confirmed in UK travellers between 2014 and the end of January 2016.

All had recently visited South and Central American countries, including Colombia, Guyana, Venezuela, Suriname and Mexico.

The majority of people affected have minimal to no symptoms, but those that do typically exhibit a mild febrile disease over two to seven days. Usual symptoms include a low-grade fever, joint pain, rashes, conjunctivitis, headaches, eye pain and muscle pain.

Serious complications and death are uncommon, but WHO experts now ‘strongly suspect’ a causal link between the virus and congenital brain malformations – most notably microcephaly – when women are infected during pregnancy.

WHO director general Margaret Chan said on Monday: ‘I am now declaring that the recent cluster of microcephaly cases and other neurological disorders reported in Brazil, following a similar cluster in French Polynesia in 2014, constitutes a public health emergency of international concern.

‘At present, the most important protective measures are the control of mosquito populations and the prevention of mosquito bites in at-risk individuals, especially pregnant women.’

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