Update Shows Zika Virus Is Usually Mild In Kids, But Longterm Effects Are Still Unknown
In addition to being hit by a major hurricane this month, Florida is still in the midst of fighting Zika virus. The virus, which has been linked to birth defects like microcephaly, has been terrorizing the state for months. But a new report released on Friday says that the illness caused by the Zika virus is usually mild in kids — which is reassuring news for parents.
Since August, the Zika outbreak in Florida has been severe enough that a travel advisory was issued – especially for pregnant women. Because Zika has been linked to microcephaly in newborns, women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant have been cautioned to avoid Zika-infested areas.
The virus, which can be transmitted via mosquito, sexual intercourse, blood, and from mother to fetus, usually only causes mild symptoms. Some people who are infected with the virus don't have any symptoms at all — making it easy for them to transmit it without realizing. If a person does show symptoms, they are usually vague, like joint pain, a slight fever, a rash, or red, irritated eyes (sometimes called conjunctivitis). Sometimes people will have muscle aches and a headache, too. These symptoms, seen in adults, are very similar to the symptoms that children infected with Zika show. These symptoms usually only last a week, but a person can spread the virus for a long time after they are infected; the virus can stay in semen for months.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the first report of its kind examining how the virus presents in children. The findings were reassuring for parents: it seems that the virus caused by Zika, which is usually mild in adults, tends to be mild in kids, too. While the major birth defect seen in infants, microcephaly, has been the major focus of Zika-related media and research, many were wondering if there were any risks for babies and young children who may contract the virus.
The CDC closely examined the cases of the first 158 children who contracted Zika who live in the U.S. All the children whose cases were looked at had, in fact, contracted the virus while traveling outside of the U.S.
The CDC found that only two children were hospitalized and none of them died. The two children who were hospitalized had significant coughs, were under the age of 5, and were having trouble taking fluids so their risk of dehydration was increased, according to the CDC report.
The symptoms reported in the children infected with Zika were, in fact, very similar to the symptoms found in many childhood illnesses, like flus and colds. Although Zika testing confirmed the virus in the 158 cases the CDC looked at, it's likely that many more children have in fact been infected and their cases went unreported, probably because they appeared to have just a regular cold.
The most prominent symptom, shown by 129 of the children, was a rash. Over half of the children had a fever, making rash and fever the most common symptoms. Although those symptoms are also common in other childhood illnesses and infections.
None of the children whose cases were examined developed Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a condition where the immune system attacks the body's nervous system. The syndrome is another worrisome risk associated with contracting Zika virus.
Of interest, the report of those 158 cases also saw five teenaged girls, age 16-17, who were pregnant. The CDC reported these young women were more likely to be diagnosed with Zika because drastic symptoms are unusual in older children, and, concerns for their pregnancy would have prompted them to seek treatment. The CDC did not indicate in its report if those pregnancies were being followed or what those patients outcomes were.
There is also no way to know whether any of the children whose cases were reviewed ended up having any longterm neurological complications; mostly because these cases were all from earlier this year, and it may take time for neurological symptoms to become apparent. It's also unlikely that any of these post-Zika syndromes will be reported, so we may not know for sure if any of the 158 children have longterm complications directly correlated to Zika.
It's also worth noting that young babies and infants were not heavily represented in this study: most of the cases were in older children and teens. Over half of the cases were females — which the CDC attributes not necessarily to an increased risk, but rather, a bias in treatment (especially since five of those cases were in young women who were pregnant and more likely to see medical attention).
That being said, the CDC maintains that serious complications after Zika are rare in any age group, but parents and healthcare providers should be aware of any possible complications, such as meningitis, Guillain-Barré Syndrome, and meningoencephalitis.
For concerned parents, the best defense against Zika infection is protecting children from mosquito bites and, for sexually active teens, making sure that they are aware of the risk of sexually transmitted infection and accordingly prepared.