UB discusses Zika virus and spring break travel


Spring break is traditionally a time for students to relax and unwind. They can put their hectic college lives on hold and enjoy some free time – either on their couches or basking in the sun.

But students this year who traveled on a quintessential spring break trip have had to worry about more than returning to campus with sunburn. Those who traveled to South American countries during the break could have put themselves at risk of contracting the Zika virus.

Dr. John A. Sellick, UB’s faculty expert on infectious diseases, offered some insight the characteristics of the Zika virus.

“Zika is a mosquito borne virus which causes fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis lasting several days to a week,” said Dr. Sellick in an email. “There is no treatment.”

In addition to transmission through mosquito bites, the disease can also be passed sexually from one person to another, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. The virus exists mainly in South American countries and is prominent in Brazil and El Salvador. Though the CDC states that there have been no confirmed local cases of people contracting Zika within the United States, there have been over 250 confirmed travel-associated cases of the Zika virus.

Because there is no cure, the Zika virus is a major threat to the health of the average person living in or traveling to South America. But even if students were exposed to or contracted the virus from traveling to a South American country, they most likely wouldn’t be in grave danger.

“People usually don’t get sick enough to go to the hospital, and they very rarely die of Zika,” according to the CDC’s website.

Although the disease may rarely result in death for the affected individual, it can incite serious health concerns for children born to a person with the Zika virus.

Children born to mothers affected with the Zika virus could suffer from microcephaly, a condition where babies are born with shrunken heads. Microcephaly can cause seizures, intellectual disabilities and hearing loss, among other problems.

The CDC notes that other problems have been seen among fetuses and infants infected with the Zika virus before birth include “absent or poorly developed brain structures, defects of the eye, hearing deficits, and impaired growth,” according to the CDC’s website.

Because UB is located far from South America, students likely don’t need to be worried about contracting the disease while within the United States. However with the amount of global travel in the world, Zika has the possibility of becoming a pertinent local issue, especially because it has been proven to be transmitted sexually.

“The existence if it in the world bothers me,” said Mahmet Fettahoglu, a graduate student in civil engineering. “Whether it’s in America or it’s in another part of the world, these things should bother us. It’s not us suffering it for not but it may be us in the future … we should have empathy for the people that are suffering.”

Fettahoglu wasn’t the only student who empathized with those that are dealing with this disease.

“[People in Southern American countries] don’t have a choice,” said Michael Chen, a senior marketing major. “They can’t even move out to avoid it. They’re forced to stay due to their economic inability … even though they know the disease causes birth defects, they might not be able to get an abortion because of fewer resources.”

Although Chen seems concerned, some other students at UB don’t seem to be bothered by the disease.

“I had a friend who went to someplace in South America during the break, I don’t remember where,” said Chen. “They didn’t seem too concerned [about Zika]. They didn’t talk about it.”

Sellick offered some advice to students who might be traveling abroad this semester or later on this year in order to lower their chances of catching Zika.

“The best way to prevent catching this virus is by using a DEET-containing insect repellent to prevent mosquito bites,” Sellick said.

And for those who show symptoms of the Zika virus after traveling to an area where the virus is present or who have sex with someone who is infected, Sellick recommends contacts their health care provider.

“We advise anyone who is pregnant & has recently traveled to an area where Zika is present to contact their OBGYN,” Sellick said.

John Jacobs is the assistant features editor and can be reached at john.jacobs@ubspectrum.com