Zika and kids: Must-read information for all parents in Singapore

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We know how Zika affects pregnant mums and their foetuses, but does it have the same devastating health consequences on infants, toddlers and older kids? Can the Zika virus pass to a child through breastmilk? What are the symptoms of Zika in your child? Read on for the answers to these questions and more.

The Zika virus is a mosquito-borne disease that first made headlines last year due its devastating impact on babies in their mothers’ womb.

If a pregnant mum contracts the disease, there is a risk her child will be born with a neurological condition known as microcephaly, which simply put, shrinks the brain.

News of the virus first emerged in Brazil and slowly but surely, the virus started spreading to other parts of the world, now hitting the shores of Singapore.

To find out about the effects of the Zika virus on a foetus during a woman’s pregnancy, click here for a comprehensive article.

This article will focus on another aspect of the virus: Zika and kids. How are babies and toddler impacted by this virus? If it harms unborn babies so much, what is the impact on little ones already born?

We spoke to Dr Leong Hoe Nam — a specialist in Infectious Diseases — of Rophi Clinic in Mt Elizabeth Novena Hospital to bring you information on this topic.

But first, a quick look at the Zika virus and what we know about it upto now.

zika and kids

If Zika is contracted during pregnancy, it may result in a condition known as microcephaly in the foetus, where the brain doesn’t grow to its normal size.

The Zika virus: Quick facts

  • The virus is carried by the Aedes mosquito, but any mosquito can transmit the disease if it bites an infected person.
  • Zika can also be (rarely) transmitted through blood transfusion, birth and sex, according to the World Health Organisation.
  • The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says only 1 in 5 people infected with the Zika virus becomes ill — they therefore don’t even know they are carrying the virus.
  • Symptoms appear three to seven days following a bite, and include low fever, rash, joint pain, red eyes, muscle pain and sometimes vomiting. In fact, the symptoms are quite similar to those of dengue.
zika and kids

Children can get Zika, but thankfully, it doesn’t seem to have the same devastating health impact it may have on a foetus.

The Zika virus and kids

Parents, you’ll be relieved to know that the Zika virus does not have the same devastating health consequences it may have on foetuses, when it comes to infants, toddlers and older kids.

Yet, it can still have some effect on a little one’s health and it’s good to know what you should be looking out for in terms of symptoms, and what you should do if you think your child has contracted the Zika virus.

The following information is based on Dr Leong’s answers to our questions, and the author’s own research.

Zika and kids: health impact

The Zika virus can infect children, explains Dr Leong. However, the severity of the illness does not differ from adults. Also, the virus does not have the devastating impact as that on foetuses.

In kids, unlike in foetuses, Zika does not appear to attack the brain, says paediatric neurologist Dr. James Bale. He adds that while brain infections, like encephalitis, are possible, they are rare.

As far as long-term effects of the infection on a child’s health is concerned, Stanford paediatric infectious disease specialist Dr. David Vu says that research in this area is just beginning; however so far, “any long-term impact is not yet determined.”

Parents, find out what the symptoms of Zika are and what you should do if you think your little one may have the virus. Please head to the next page for this and more, including information about mosquito repellents.  

Zika and kids: Symptoms and diagnosis

Parents should look out for fever, headache, muscle aches says Dr Leong. These may be accompanied by mild conjunctivitis and a faint rash.

If you think your child may have contracted Zika, the first thing you need to do is speak to your family doctor advises Dr Leong. The child may need to produce a sample of urine for testing for Zika.

According to the Ministry of Health (MOH) Singapore, the only reliable test available for Zika at the moment is the reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test. This looks for genetic material of the virus in blood or urine. However, RT-PCR test can only detect the virus in blood within 5-7 days of onset of symptoms and in urine within 14 days of onset.

The MOH also explains that there is no known vaccine or specific treatment against the Zika virus. Treatment is directed at alleviating symptoms.

However, trials for a vaccine are currently underway and will take at least 3-5 years before it is available in the markets, say Dr Leong.

zika and kids

Look for a repellent with DEET or Picarcidin and reapply every couple of hours for maximum protection.

Information about mosquito repellents

Since there is no vaccine or cure for Zika, the best way you can protect your child is by preventing him from getting the virus in the first place.

In this regard, mosquito repellents offer good protection to your child from the virus-carrying Aedes and other mosquitoes.

You should be looking for a repellent that contains at least 15% DEET (diethyltoluamide) or Picarcidin, both of which are recommended by the World Health Organisation. Dr Leong reassures parents that both these ingredients are very safe when topically applied.

A repellent that contains citronella oil is also effective, but less so than those that contain DEET or Picarcidin. You should not solely rely on it, but use it as a supplement to repellents with DEET or Picaricidin says Dr Leong.

Remember: apply the mosquito repellent every two to three hours as sweat in our humid tropical country will wash it away. Apply it on all exposed skin.

Additional to applying mosquito repellent on your little ones, dress them in long sleeved, loose cotton tops and long pants if you are heading out, especially at dawn or dusk.

Continue to the final page of this article for information on the Zika virus and breastfeeding, as well as some little known facts about the disease as explained by Dr Leong. 

Breastfeeding and Zika

A report by the WHO states that Zika virus ribonucleic acid (RNA) can be present in breastmilk.  However, there are currently no documented reports of Zika virus being transmitted to infants through breastfeeding, and the WHO, as well as the CDC encourage women to continue breastfeeding their babies.

According to the WHO, “in light of the evidence available, the benefits of breastfeeding for the infant and mother outweigh any potential risk of Zika virus transmission through breast milk.”

zika and kids

Always follow these steps to prevent mosquitoes from breeding.

Did you know?

  • Having acquired Zika confers permanent immunity, says Dr Leong. However, he does not encourage children to deliberately seek infection, as each infected individual may in turn propagate the epidemic.
  • An uninfected mosquito biting a child with Zika infection will become infected, and in turn spread to others.
  • Children with Zika may pass out urine with the virus. Direct contact of the urine on bare (but intact skin) poses no risk to the others. Dr Leong advises avoiding mucous contact (lips / mouth / rectal / vaginal) with urine of those with Zika infection.
  • Zika is not transmitted by kissing or hugging and certainly not by contact such as playing together.
  • The direct bite of a mosquito that has just bitten a child with Zika infection does not transmit the virus, explains Dr Leong. The virus must incubate in the mosquito for at least a few days (estimated 5 days) before transmission. Hence it is perfectly fine to house an uninfected individual with an infected child in the same room.

Parents, also remember the basic rules when it comes to stopping mosquitoes from breeding: keep your surroundings clean, don’t let water collect and become stagnant, and use repellent, clothing and mosquito netting at night to protect your little ones from mosquito bites.

For the latest health advise related to Zika, please check this MOH website regularly.

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