Zika Virus in the Caribbean: An Interview with Dr. Esther Ellis

Zika Virus in the Caribbean: An Interview with Dr. Esther Ellis

We interviewed St. Croix-based Epidemiologist Dr. Esther Ellis, to get the most current and locally-specific information on the Zika virus. Her husband, Dr. Brett Ellis, is the territory laboratory director.

Q: How many Zika virus cases have been reported in the Caribbean? How many confirmed?

A: [Dr. Esther Ellis]: As of November 15, 2016 – 1,646 cases of Zika virus have been reported in the U.S. Virgin Islands, 747 confirmed positive. Also, 1,244 pregnant women have been tested and 86 of them confirmed positive.

Q: What risk does the contraction of Zika virus pose to pregnant women?

A: The risk of contracting Zika virus during pregnancy is the potential for the virus to cross into the brain of the developing fetus and cause microcephaly. Additionally, we are finding that a baby born to a Zika-positive mother might be born appearing healthy, but have vision, hearing or learning problems later in life. That is why we are following all babies born to Zika-positive mothers for up to one year.

Q: As a medical professional, what advice do you give pregnant women living in the U.S. Virgin Islands in relation to Zika virus? What about parents of children under 18 months?

A: Pregnant women need to take every precaution to prevent getting Zika during pregnancy. That includes wearing long pants, long-sleeve shirts, clothing treated with permethrin, and repellent on exposed skin. Also, sleeping under a bed net. All these steps should be taken to prevent mosquito bites. Additionally, because Zika can be sexually transmitted, they need to practice protected sex throughout their pregnancy. 80 percent of people that get Zika do not have any symptoms, which means their spouse could have it and not know it.

The U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Health is offering free mosquito control spray treatments outside the homes of pregnant residents, to help prevent the spread of Zika. These home treatments are available every two weeks on all three islands. Please call the Emergency Operations Center Zika hotline at 340-712-6205 to set-up this free service.

For children, there appears to be no additional risk. This is because after birth you have what’s called a blood brain barrier, which prevents viruses from crossing into your brain. In rare cases, people can get Zika and develop GBS [Guillain-Barre syndrome]. In those cases, the virus has somehow gotten through the blood brain barrier, but that risk is no different in children versus adults.

Q: What are the symptoms of Zika?

A: The main symptoms are fever, joint pain, rash and conjunctivitis (red eyes). Anyone with two of those four symptoms, or anyone that is pregnant regardless of symptoms, we recommend get tested. Call the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Health (DOH) Zika hotline at 340-712-6205 for instructions on how to get tested for free.  Walk-ins are also welcome at both the Charles Harwood DOH location on St. Croix and the Community Health DOH location on St. Thomas.

Q: What is the treatment for Zika?

A: There is no treatment. However, rest and fluids are recommended.

Q: How can someone get tested for Zika? What’s the turnaround time on test results?

A: Anyone who wants to get free Zika testing can come to the U.S Virgin Islands Department of Health Clinics either on St. Croix [at Charles Harwood Memorial Hospital] or St. Thomas to get tested [the testing process takes about 15 minutes]. Turnaround time on results is one to two weeks. For more information on free testing, call the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Health Zika hotline at 340-712-6205.

Q: Since there is no prescription treatment for Zika at present, why is it important to get tested?

A: It’s important to get tested because if positive, you are immune for life. Also, if pregnant, you need to get tested twice throughout the pregnancy (once at the first prenatal visit and once midway through the second trimester).

Additionally, the Department of Health can use the data to track cases and know what’s happening with the outbreak. We can use the data to find hot spots, to determine places where we should do targeted mosquito control. Having accurate data could also affect the amount of federal funding the U.S. Virgin Islands receive to prevent the spread of Zika.

At AeroMD, we strive to provide our local community with the most current information on health-related issues facing the U.S. Virgin Islands. We have the only dedicated medevac aircraft based in the territory, because our first priority is the health and safety of Virgin Islanders. Become an AeroMD member today to ensure that you and your loved ones are protected in case of a medical emergency.

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