Berkeley woman awaits test results for Zika virus

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A Berkeley woman is awaiting test results after believing she may have contracted Zika — a vector-borne disease strongly associated with birth defects — after a recent tropical vacation.

The woman, who is pregnant, was tested for Zika after experiencing symptoms such as rashes and sore joints after a trip to Bora Bora and Easter Island. There have been no Zika transmissions confirmed in California, but the disease has been spreading rapidly through countries in Central and South America since last year. Nearly 4,000 cases of suspected microcephaly — 30 times the yearly average — have been reported in Brazil.

The disease is transmitted via mosquito bites and is not communicable between people. Some tests have suggested the virus could pass from mother to child through embryonic fluid, according to John Swartzberg, a clinical professor in the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

For women infected with Zika while pregnant, the disease has been strongly associated — but not definitively linked — with microcephaly in infants, a condition of incomplete brain development that results in abnormally small head sizes in newborns.

Zika virus is carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is found only in warmer climates such as in southern and southeast United States and Central America, according to Swartzberg.

The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, has warned women who are pregnant or interested in becoming pregnant not to travel to countries throughout the Caribbean and South and Central America, as well as parts of Africa. Travelers are being advised to wear long sleeves and use insect repellant to avoid mosquito bites.

Zika’s symptoms are mild and include fever, rashes, conjunctivitis and sometimes joint pain. Only 20 percent of those infected experience symptoms, which can pass within a few days, according to the CDC. According to Swartzberg, those already affected develop immunity to the disease.

These “nonspecific symptoms” make Zika difficult to diagnose in countries where dengue fever and chikungunya are also common because they exhibit similar symptoms, Swartzberg said.

According to Gil Chavez — deputy director and state epidemiologist in the California Department of Public Health, or CDPH — there have been five instances since 2013 in which travelers have returned to California after contracting Zika abroad.

Health care providers are not required to report instances of the Zika virus to the CDPH, but as of Jan. 18, the CDPH requested they voluntarily do so.

According to city spokesperson Matthai Chakko, in cases of infectious diseases, the city would collaborate with local health organizations to ensure that providers have as much information as possible. The city tracks instances of infectious diseases, such as measles and whooping cough, which have occurred in the Berkeley community in recent years.

“Hypothetically, if we got a positive result, the message for the general public is still about travel,” Chakko said regarding the outcome of the Berkeley woman’s test.

The woman’s test results for Zika are being processed through the CDC headquarters in Atlanta and may take several weeks.

Alexander Barreira is the lead schools and communities reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @abarreira_dc.