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UAB doctors offer advice as Zika virus reaches Alabama for first time: Relax

(Video above: UAB’s Dr. David Freedman, left, and Dr. Craig Wilson discuss the Zika virus and its potential to spread in Alabama.)

By Bob Blalock

Media coverage and public concern have ratcheted higher as the Zika virus spreads across the world and to the United States and Alabama. Friday, two UAB experts with broad experience in international settings said they do not expect big problems from the virus in Alabama or the Southeast.

Dr. David Freedman, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at UAB, said neither the Southeast nor Alabama has the density of the mosquito responsible for spreading the virus to cause widespread infection.

“There could be little pockets of transmission,” said Freedman, one of 12 members of the World Health Organization Emergency Committee on Zika.

Zika virus is spread mainly through the bites of Aedes species mosquitoes but also can be transmitted through infected blood and sex. Only about 1 in 5 people infected with the virus become ill, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For those who do get sick, Freedman describes Zika as “like a bad flu with a rash.” Symptoms include fever, rash, joint and muscle pain, red eyes and headache.

Those who are at the greatest risk are women who are pregnant or may become pregnant.

That’s because the Zika virus, after a widespread outbreak in Brazil in early 2015, has been linked to a spike in microcephaly in babies born in the virus-affected areas. Microcephaly is an abnormal smallness of the head, with complications that include developmental delays, stunted growth, seizures and mental retardation.

On Feb. 1, the World Health Organization declared the virus a worldwide health emergency following reports in January connecting the birth defects in Brazilian babies to the Zika virus.

Dr. Craig Wilson, director of the UAB Sparkman Center for Global Health, urged pregnant women not to travel to areas with high concentrations of Zika, such as South America, out of “an abundance of caution.”

“If there’s no need to go, don’t,” he said.

(More after the video)

(Video above: Bloomberg News: The Zika virus explained)

Last week, the Alabama Department of Public Health confirmed Alabama’s first travel-related case of Zika virus in a state resident who lives in Morgan County.

“We knew it was only a matter of time before we would have the first positive case of an individual in Alabama with Zika virus,” Acting State Health Officer Dr. Tom Miller said in a news release. “Given the frequency of international travel to affected areas, we anticipate having additional positive cases. We are working with the medical community to identify high-risk individuals.”

The state health department recommends the following steps people can take to protect themselves from mosquito bites:

— Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants.
— Use as directed EPA-registered insect repellants with DEET, picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus or IR3535.
— Stay and sleep in screened-in or air-conditioned rooms.

Freedman also recommends people make sure their property is free of standing water for mosquitoes to breed in, such as in flower pots and beds, wash basins and buckets.

While Freedman and Wilson downplayed the threat of the Zika virus in Alabama, they acknowledged that things could change for the worse.

Freedman said the WHO’s public health emergency declaration is based “more about what we don’t know than what we do know. That’s what’s so scary about this one.”

For more information and travel notices about Zika, go the cdc.gov and search Zika. Also, the state health department website (adph.org) will be updated each Monday with the latest figures on Zika test results for Alabama residents.