Rock County Health Department: Don't worry about Zika

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Thursday, February 11, 2016

JANESVILLE—Pregnant women should not travel to Brazil or any other country that harbors mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus.

Other than that, cross Zika off of your list of anxiety-inducing news items.

That's the message from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the local health department.

Despite maps showing Zika cases in Illinois and Minnesota, Wisconsin residents don't need to fret.

“It's a very specific mosquito that carries the virus,” said Debbie Erickson, acting nursing supervisor for the Rock County Health Department.

And that mosquito is found primarily in parts of Central and South America and in the Caribbean.

Nationwide, 52 cases of Zika have been reported, and all of those are travel-related.

Earlier this month, Dr. Anne Schuchat of the CDC told The Associated Press: "For the average American who's not traveling, this is not something they need to worry about."

Sexual transmission is possible, but with only three cases, very little is known about the possible impact. In those three cases, it was passed from a man to a woman.

Erickson said her staff advises pregnant women to postpone travel—or not go at all—to a country were Zika is prevalent.

There is a strong correlation between Zika and microcephaly, a birth defect in which the baby's head is much smaller than expected, according to the CDC. Researchers are also looking into the link between Zika and Guillain-Barre syndrome, an illness that can cause temporary paralysis.

Zika is one of many mosquito-borne illnesses travelers should know about, said Erickson, who also oversees the health department's travel program.

The program provides immunizations and information for travelers to all parts of the world. Last year, about 400 people traveling to about 110 places came to the health department for vaccinations and preventative treatment for diseases such as typhoid, malaria, yellow fever and encephalitis.

The health department has software that keeps staffers up-to-date on disease outbreaks throughout the world.

Monday, for example, the island of Hawaii—sometimes called “the big island”—declared a state of emergency because of a resurgence of dengue fever. More than 250 cases have been reported, and of those, 24 were visitors to the island.

“Zika is in the news right now,” Erickson said. “But there are other risks to diseases that our bodies aren't immune to.”

The health department vaccinates travelers not only to keep them healthy, but also to prevent disease outbreaks when those people return home.

In many countries, common diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella, and polio haven't been eradicated. Without vaccinations against those diseases, they can easily spread.

More common illnesses are those caused by cryptosporidium and giardia parasites and salmonella bacteria. All of them cause gastrointestinal illnesses that can spread rapidly from one person to another.

Because of the seriousness of such diseases and how contagious they are, doctors report cases to the health department.

“Last year, about 10 percent of the cases were from people who had traveled outside the country,” Erickson said.

Diseases vary from county to country, and some are more common in certain areas of a country. All of that information is part of the health department's database.

Nurses typically ask what kind of traveling a person plans to do. Will he go on planned excursions or off the beaten track? Is she going to do mission work in a poor district or will she stay in an all-inclusive resort? Those questions make a difference.

Last year, the three most popular destinations for vaccines were Peru, India and Haiti.

The health department has provided vaccines for college students studying abroad, church groups doing mission work, backpackers and traditional vacationers.

Many of the patients come at the last minute and aren't aware of the risks.

“A lot of them say, 'Oh my gosh, I never ever thought about that,'” Erickson said.

Along with vaccinations or treatment, travelers also get information about what to do if they get sick in the country they are visiting, what kind of medical care to expect and even some foreign phrases that could be helpful.

Patients pay an office fee and for the vaccinations.

No tax dollars are used for the travel program, said Marie-Noel Sandoval, Rock County health officer.

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