As I write this column, spring — or what feels like summer — is finally here in the great Midwest. After more than a few false starts, it looks like the days that we all long for during the seemingly endless days of winter’s cold and gloom are finally here, days filled with sunshine, warm temperatures — and the unofficial state bird of Michigan, the mosquito. Yes, that pesky bloodsucking insect is already being spotted and swatted in all corners of the state, but this summer, its buzz may be associated with a new disease: the Zika virus.
Like many things in our 24/7 news and instant Twitter-filled world, facts — or socalled facts — regarding the Zika virus have been inundating the general public for months. But just what are the real facts about this alien-sounding disease? Do we all need to stay huddled indoors until cold weather drives the mosquitos away, or put on body-condoms before we venture outside? While I have my own opinions about Zika, I always like to empower my patients so that they can make their own informed decisions about their health and life, so here are facts as we know them.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the Zika virus was discovered in 1947 in central Africa. For the next 60 years, the virus was little known outside of epidemiologists, with only 14 documented cases being confirmed. However, in 2015, all of that suddenly changed, with an outbreak in Brazil and other South American countries. As of March 2016, over 40,000 cases have been confirmed worldwide. However, while there have been 618 reported cases here in the U.S. as of June 1, all of these cases have been in people who have traveled to countries where Zika is prevalent.
So what caused this sudden outbreak of Zika? That’s a question that’s still seeking an answer. Those of the more cynical bent wonder if it’s rogue germ warfare experiment gone wrong, or even worse yet, thrust upon an unsuspecting public. Epidemiologists, on the other hand, point to more mundane theories, like the virus traveling in asymptomatic travelers and finding a great home to reproduce and thrive in South American Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.
“Asymptomatic?” some of you might be saying, “I thought Zika causes all sorts of horrible problems, especially in pregnant women.” Again, the facts (yes, those silly things that get in the way of interesting and inflammatory internet banter) are that yes, Zika can potentially cause high fevers, debilitating muscle aches, and a whole-body rash. However, in most people (at least 80 percent) with noncompromised immune systems, it causes little or no illness. It is true, though, that infection with Zika can cause certain birth defects in the fetuses of pregnant women.
So what does all of this mean for those of us here in Michigan? Well, in my humble opinion, it means that Zika is not something we need to fear. Listen, I’m not belittling the public health menace Zika is in certain areas of the world; I am saying I’m confident that Michigan is definitely not one of those places. One of the main reasons I say this is that the major mosquito carrier of Zika, Aedes aegypti, isn’t found here; it’s just too cold for that certain species of bloodsucker. My medical advice then, is to put on some sunscreen and some natural mosquito repellent (while we don’t need to worry about Zika, West Nile virus is still lurking about and really, who enjoys swatting mosquitoes all day?), then get outside with your favorite summertime beverage and enjoy our warm sunny days. All too soon, northern autumn winds will again be the harbinger of another Michigan winter.
Dr. Edward R. Rosick is a triple-board certified (preventive medicine, public health, and holistic medicine) associate professor at the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine. He is also the author of the just released book “Optimal Prevention.”