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What do nurses need to know about the Zika virus?

In February 2016, the World Health Organization officially declared the Zika virus a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” In addition to its spread to a number of South American countries, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that mosquito-born cases of Zika have already been identified in the U.S. territories of American Samoa, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and additionally cases have been found among people in the U.S. who recently traveled to infected countries.

As the virus continues to spread, it is becoming a growing concern of the health care field. If you are a nursing professional working in medicine, it is important for you to be familiar with the status of the Zika virus in the U.S. and abroad, as well as be able to identify the symptoms of the illness and educate patients on how to avoid catching the disease.


Identifying symptoms
A challenge for nurses is that the majority of patients infected with the Zika virus may be asymptomatic. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that symptoms of the illness include:

● Fever.
● Rash.
● Joint pain.
● Conjunctivitis.
● Muscle pain.
● Headache.

The difficulty is that even when these signs of Zika present themselves in infected patients, those symptoms are not uncommon in a number of other illnesses. This can make it difficult for nurses to diagnose patients who have the virus. However, it may be more clear when some of these symptoms are present after a person has been traveling to an area with high incidence of Zika. Consequently, asking for a person’s recent travel history is more important than ever.

If you believe a patient has Zika, the virus can be diagnosed through lab tests of blood or other bodily fluids, according to the WHO. If the person is in fact infected, the treatment of Zika is fairly simple at this time. According to the CDC, there is currently no medicine to fight the virus – or a vaccine to prevent it – but instead patients are advised to get plenty of rest and hydrate well. Patients experiencing pain or a fever can take an over the counter medicine such as acetaminophen or paracetamol. It is very rare that a patient will require hospitalization or die from the virus.

Increasing education
In addition to being familiar with the symptoms yourself, you should also educate any patients who are planning on traveling to an area where the virus is prevalent. While they are unlikely to need medical assistance if they become infected, it can be spread sexually when people are unaware that they are infected. Consequently, it is important for patients to be familiar with the symptoms so that they can be diagnosed and take appropriate precautions.

However, as a nurse you should not only be helping patients to identify possible cases of the Zika virus, but also educating patients in how to take preventive measures to avoid catching the virus altogether. The precautions recommended by the WHO are mostly related to preventing transmission through mosquito bites. They include wearing clothes that limit the amount of exposed skin, using barriers such as nets and screens in the home and using an effective repellant that contains DEET, IR3535 or icaridin. Steps should also be taken to eliminate standing water where mosquitos can breed. Any containers that can gather water – such as in pots, gutters or even bird baths – should be emptied.


Education is especially important when treating patients who are either pregnant or trying to conceive, due to the risk of microcephaly in children born to mothers with Zika. According to the American Nurses Association, it is currently known that:

● Women who are pregnant can become infected with the Zika virus.
● Pregnant women usually become infected through mosquito bites, but can catch the virus through sexual intercourse with an infected man.
● Women who are pregnant can pass the infection on to their child either during pregnancy or at delivery.

However, the organization reported that it is not known how likely it is that a pregnant woman will get Zika if she is exposed to the disease, or the specifics of how it will affect the pregnancy and child if she is infected. For more information, refer to the CDC’s “Interim Guidelines for Pregnant Women During a Zika Virus Outbreak – United States 2016.”



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