In just a few weeks, Zika has gone from being a little known virus to a rather infamous one. The disease, new to the Western Hemisphere last year, is being closely watched internationally, and the World Health Organization has declared its spread a global public health emergency. Just last week, the Centers for Disease Control confirmed the first case of the Zika virus disease here in Virginia, in McGaheysville. WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.
Heather Baker is passionate about traveling to Guatemala. Unfortunately, the mosquitos she meets there are also passionate:
HEATHER BAKER: Mosquitos do either love or hate me, I'm not sure which it is.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and the Virginia Department of Health confirmed Virginia’s first known case of Zika virus disease. Baker, who lives in McGaheysville, is that person. She has received verbal confirmation of the positive Zika test results from her health care providers, who likewise have received verbal confirmation from health officials. As of late afternoon Monday, documentation stating as much had not been provided to Baker. She believes that her Zika infection is a result of a bite from an infected mosquito in Zacapa, Guatemala. [UPDATE, Tuesday, Feb. 2: The Central Shenandoah Health District, in a letter dated Feb. 1, 2016, confirmed that Ms. Baker had tested positive for zika virus.]
In November, Baker made her fourth trip in less than two years to the Central American country, to serve children with special needs with a Christian ministry called Hope of Life International. She wants others like her to be aware of Zika.
BAKER: Fredericksburg, Lynchburg, and Harrisonburg have probably hundreds of people in the last year that have been to Hope of Life, so I really want to reach out to all of those team members, to their leaders. If someone has returned from one of these affected areas and they believe that they could have this, go straight to the health department. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. The best thing to do is to go get tested. CDC wants to know. They want to watch this, and they want to know who really has it.
Baker doesn’t know which of her many mosquito bites gave her Zika.
BAKER: This trip was unseasonably rainy, so I could visibly see places where there was standing water and I remember standing over this reservoir of water--it's actually a soccer field that my boys had helped to clear the year before and prior to that it had been a tilapia pond. It was completely covered, like at least a foot, maybe more of water, and I remember, and it was right down from my friend's home in the village there. I remember looking down and saying, “God please protect them,” because I know that's where these things breed and where they thrive.
Three days* after Baker returned from Guatemala, she noticed an enlarged lymph node, then had body aches, then a rash. She had not yet heard of Zika; she thought maybe she had strep or the flu. But those tests came back negative, and her symptoms were continuing and expanding to include joint pain, photosensitivity, “brain fog,” minor memory issues, and depression.
BAKER: I've had pneumonia several times and it reminded me very much of that where I just couldn't go up the stairs, couldn't take a shower, do anything without feeling like I needed to take a nap. So the weeks around Christmas I probably spent twenty hours a day on the couch just completely not able to function.
According to the CDC, hospitalization from Zika virus symptoms is uncommon. Only one in five infected people suffer from symptoms, which usually last just a few days to a week. Of much greater concern are a possible connection between Zika and Guillain-Barré syndrome, as well as Zika’s suspected role in microcephaly, a head and brain birth defect. Study about those relationships is ongoing, and the CDC is recommending that all pregnant women consider postponing travel to areas experiencing Zika transmission.
Health officials say that Zika virus is acquired through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. The virus isn’t easily transferred without mosquitos. Baker, therefore, poses no risk to other Virginians.
Keith Hummel is the doctor who saw Baker at Valley Urgent Care. He is not an infectious disease doctor but has had firsthand experience with dengue, a third disease carried by the same kind of mosquito that carries Zika and chikungunya. Baker’s symptoms, he says have “kind of lingered.”
KEITH HUMMEL: Some people may have no symptoms or they may have them for a few days and they're gone, and then there are people like Heather who the symptoms will linger and there can be other symptoms because these mosquitos and these diseases, don't read the textbook, so they don't know that everybody's supposed to be the same.
Hummel said that in the two years before getting Zika, Baker had several other serious illnesses, so it could be that her immune system was already taxed, making her more vulnerable to persisting symptoms.
Even with her ongoing fatigue, Baker can work from home, on her laptop. She is grateful for her three high-school-aged, homeschooled boys who help out around the house. As for her passion about the children at Hope of Life International’s Kelly’s House in Guatemala, Zika
BAKER: Doesn't change a thing. If I can't go back there, there's plenty I can do from here. It just honestly it drives me harder.
But Baker isn’t fully satisfied with helping out from a distance; she wants to go back to Guatemala.
BAKER: If I had the finances and the green light, I'd be there next week.