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Zika Virus: What You Need to Know

Zika Virus: What You Need to Know

Following the confirmation of locally transmitted Zika virus infection in Singapore, here’s what you need to know about the virus, precaution measures to take, and the screening options available.

Update: Dr Wong Sin Yew, an infectious diseases specialist at Gleneagles Hospital, shares what you need to know about the Zika virus. (03:28)

Dr Wong Sin Yew explains the transmission of the Zika virus in Singapore. (05:25)

Challenging to contain Zika virus: Health experts

What is Zika? How does it spread?

The Zika virus is predominantly transmitted by the Aedes mosquito. Sexual transmission, although considered a much less significant route, can still occur, as the virus can be detected in semen. 

What are the symptoms?

An estimated 80% of people infected by the Zika virus are asymptomatic, meaning that they do not show any symptoms. In others, the Zika infection may cause a mild illness. Here are the common symptoms of Zika infection:

  • Fever
  • Itchy pink rash
  • Joint or muscle pain
  • Conjunctivitis (red eye)
  • Headache

Symptoms usually set in 3 – 12 days after a bite from an infected mosquito, and last between 4 – 7 days. Severe complications or illnesses are rare, but researchers have recently linked the Zika virus to microcephaly in newborns, which is a condition where the baby is born with an unusually small head, often accompanied by brain damage. In adults, the Zika virus has been linked to the Guillain-Barre syndrome (a form of temporary paralysis), as well as damage to the central nervous system – which may result in hearing/visual disorders, brain abnormalities, epilepsy, impairment of psychomotor development, and defects in the joints and bones.

There is currently no vaccine available to prevent Zika infection.

Zika Virus and Pregnancy

The Zika virus can be passed from a pregnant woman to the foetus. There is a chance that it may cause microcephaly, a severe birth defect that affects brain development in the newborn.

What is Microcephaly?

This is a neurological condition in which the infant’s circumference of the head is significantly smaller than the heads of other babies of the same age and sex, usually due to incomplete brain development. Microcephaly may be present at birth, or could develop during the first few years of life.

Zika virus infection during pregnancy has been linked to microcephaly in newborns, as well as other congenital problems such as hearing loss, blindness, seizures, and impaired growth.

However, according to Ministry of Health (MOH) Singapore, a positive Zika test does not mean that the foetus is harmed or infected. A recent study suggests that the estimated risk of microcephaly associated with infection during pregnancy is less than 13%. Microcephaly may also be caused by environmental or genetic factors, such as rubella, Down syndrome, and exposure to drugs, alcohol or other toxins to the womb during pregnancy. There is currently no specific treatment for this condition. If you are pregnant and unsure, please consult your O&G doctor.

How is Zika virus infection diagnosed?

Zika virus infection is diagnosed through reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) testing on urine or blood. This test is able to detect Zika infection in the blood within 7 days of the onset of symptoms, and in urine within 14 days of the onset of symptoms. If you feel unwell and would like to be tested, seek medical help as soon as you experience symptoms.

Elective screening is available at Gleneagles Hospital. For enquiries and appointments, please contact the 24-hour Zika Hotline at +65 6470 5688.

What can I do to prevent Zika infection?

It is important to take the following precaution measures to prevent mosquito bites, especially so for expectant mothers:

  • Cover arms and legs by wearing long-sleeved shirts / pants when heading outdoors
  • Sleep under mosquito nets or in rooms with mesh wire nets
  • Apply insect repellent
  • Prevent Aedes mosquito breeding by performing the 10-minute 5-step mozzie wipeout:

What other precautions can I take to keep my partner safe?

Apart from the above precautions to avoid mosquito bites, doctors have advised on the following.

1) For females with confirmed Zika virus infection:

  • Refrain from sexual activity for at least 8 weeks after recovery

2) For males with confirmed Zika virus infection:

  • Refrain from sexual activity for 6 months after recovery and adopt safe sexual practices ie. safe and correct usage of condoms.

Source: Ministry of Health (MOH) Singapore Circular 46/2016 dated 30 August 2016 – Clinical Guidance on Zika Virus Infection and Pregnancy