Ask the Pharmacist                                                   

By Stefanie Tagg                                                                                         Pharmacist at Thrifty Foods Pharmacy


What is the Zika Virus?

Zika virus was first discovered in 1947 in the Zika Forest in Uganda. In 1952, the first human cases were detected and since then, outbreaks have been reported in tropical Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. Zika is very similar to other viruses spread by mosquito bites in these areas, such as dengue and chikungunya.

How is the Zika virus spread?

ZIka is a virus primarily spread by mosquitos. There are several different types of mosquitos. The type that currently transmits Zika is found in South East Asia, Africa, Pacific Islands, Central and South America. It lives in urban areas (as they prefer to bite humans) and is primarily a day biting mosquito that is often found indoors. Many areas have Zika virus present but only in animals, not humans. There have also been cases of sexual transmission of Zika virus.

What are the symptoms?

Most people infected with Zika do not have symptoms. For those that do develop symptoms, they are mostly mild including fever, rash, joint/muscle pain, conjunctivitis (red eyes), and headache lasting for several days to a week. People usually don’t get sick enough to go to the hospital, and they very rarely die of Zika. Once a person has been infected with Zika, they are likely to be protected from future infections.

Why is there so much media coverage about Zika?

During pregnancy, Zika infection can cause microcephaly, a birth defect of the brain resulting in small head circumference and developmental problems. Other birth defects have been discovered as well, including defects of the eye, hearing deficits, and impaired growth. There have also been increased reports of Guillain-Barré syndrome, an uncommon sickness of the nervous system, in areas affected by Zika. There is currently an outbreak in South and Central America. The 2016 Olympic Games took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in August where there are active cases of Zika virus. August is winter in Brazil and there is less mosquito activity but still a potential for disease transmission.

How does this affect us in Canada?

We do not have the type of mosquito that currently transmits the Zika virus. Canadians can become infected through travel to areas with active Zika transmission. There is currently no vaccine, although several are in clinical trials, so mosquito bite prevention is still the most effective way to prevent infection. There is a lower risk of transmission through sexual intercourse in people returning from areas where Zika is present. Practice safe sex with anyone returning from a Zika infected area. For women who are pregnant, travel to areas with active Zika transmission should be avoided. For women who are planning on becoming pregnant, you can avoid travel or wait 8 weeks after returning from a Zika area before trying to conceive.

For more information on Zika, see the CDC website, Government of Canada website under travel or the WHO website. If you are planning on travelling and have concerns, consider contacting a travel clinic.