In 2016, 63 travelers returned to Tennessee infected with Zika virus. In each of those cases, the Tennessee Department of Health and the Tennessee medical community worked quickly to ensure the virus would not spread to others.
Many Tennesseans are now planning for spring breaks, mission trips and other travel to warmer locations where mosquito populations are known to transmit Zika. TDH reminds Tennesseans that mosquito bite precautions are vital to protecting their health and the health of others where they live, work, play and pray when returning.
“We are concerned some may assume Zika is no longer a threat to their health or a threat to others if they bring the virus home with them,” said TDH State Epidemiologist Tim Jones, MD. “All travelers should know there is still no vaccine to prevent Zika and no drug to cure it. To prevent this harmful virus from spreading in Tennessee, travelers must protect themselves from mosquito bites, avoid unprotected sex with someone who may have the disease and report quickly to their medical provider if they suspect a Zika virus infection when they return.”
Zika virus can affect people differently. Some won’t have symptoms or only mild symptoms that may include fever, rash, red eyes, joint and muscle pain and headache. These may last only a few days to a week.
In most people, the virus will cause little to no harm. Those at most risk from severe illness and complications from Zika infection are pregnant women and those trying to become pregnant, who may have a baby with severe brain defects including microcephaly. Microcephaly is a condition where the baby’s head is smaller than normal and a child may experience other health challenges, including physical and speech functions, seizures, hyperactivity, coordination problems and other brain and neurological disorders. Pregnant women should follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and TDH recommendations to avoid travel to areas with Zika, be extremely cautious in avoiding mosquito bites if travel is necessary and abstain from any type of unprotected sex with a partner if they traveled to an area with Zika.
“All travelers should know the mosquitoes that transmit Zika virus can bite night or day, both indoors and outdoors,” said TDH Vector-Borne Disease Program Director Abelardo Moncayo, PhD. “’Fight the Bite’ strategies should include use of repellants approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Repellants containing 20 to 30 percent DEET, picaridin and IR3535 are safe for pregnant women when used as directed on the product label.”
Other mosquito bite prevention tactics include wearing long, loose and light clothing; not using items with fragrances that may attract mosquitoes and using permethrin-treated clothing. Permethrin is a commercially available product that can be used to treat clothing to kill mosquitoes and other insects. Used properly it is safe and effective.
The CDC provides a list of locations where Zika virus is known to be spread at www.cdc.gov/zika/geo/index.html.
In addition to Zika virus, travelers should understand they may be at increased risk for other mosquito-borne illnesses, including dengue and chikungunya. There is no vaccine to prevent either of these diseases and no specific antiviral treatment. Both can cause severe pain.
“We don’t want to put a damper on anyone’s enthusiasm for travel, but we also don’t want anyone being harmed by a preventable disease,” said TDH Commissioner John Dreyzehner. “A little forethought and a few simple, inexpensive precautions by travelers to affected areas can help prevent diseases from being spread here when they return. So far we’ve been able to keep many diseases like Zika and other diseases that used to be significant threats in our state, like malaria and yellow fever, out of Tennessee’s mosquitoes, and with the help of travelers, we can continue that in 2017.”
The mission of the Tennessee Department of Health is to protect, promote and improve the health and prosperity of people in Tennessee. TDH has facilities in all 95 counties and provides direct services for more than one in five Tennesseans annually as well as indirect services for everyone in the state, including emergency response to health threats, licensure of health professionals, regulation of health care facilities and inspection of food service establishments. Learn more about TDH services and programs at www.tn.gov/health.