4 Things Pharmacy Technicians Should Know About Zika Virus

The spread of the Zika virus is a growing concern for many patients and health care professionals, especially with the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro just around the corner.

The spread of the Zika virus is a growing concern for many patients and health care professionals, especially with the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro just around the corner.

Since a number of patients may approach the pharmacy counter with questions about the virus, technicians should consider staying up-to-date on the following Zika-related information:

1. The Zika Virus Can Be Sexually Transmitted

Although the mechanisms through which the Zika virus is transmitted still aren’t fully understood, the CDC has recently confirmed a case of male-to-male sexual transmission.

The case, which was first reported in February, involved a traveling man who engaged in unprotected and penetrative anal sex with a nontraveling man after a 1-week visit to Venezuela. When the nontraveling patient developed signs and symptoms of Zika infection 7 days post-coitus, the CDC collected semen specimen from both men and later confirmed the presence of the virus.

After further studies and investigations, the CDC concluded that the virus could be spread through both anal and vaginal intercourse.

In a recent HealthDay/Harris Poll of more than 2000 adults, only 45% of respondents knew that the Zika virus could be sexually transmitted; comparatively, 75% of participants knew that the virus is most predominantly spread through mosquitoes.

The CDC recommends the use of condoms for or abstinence from vaginal, anal, and oral sex among couples with a male partner who may be infected with Zika, particularly those who have recently traveled to or live in an area known to have a Zika outbreak.

2. Zika Infection Increases the Risk of Birth Defects

Serious birth defects, such as brain damage, resulting from Zika infection are a major cause for concern and confusion among pregnant patients, yet recent study results shed some light on the virus’ effects in developing fetuses.

The study, which was published in Cell Stem Cell, examined the effects of the Zika virus on early brain development in lab-grown human stem cells. After exposing the neural progenitor cells responsible for the development of the brain’s cortex to the Zika virus, the research team discovered that up to 90% of the cells had been infected within 3 days of inoculation.

Notably, the researchers found that infected cells were able to produce copies of the virus and perpetuate the infection. Although the majority of the infected cells died off, the survivors were unable to divide normally and create new brain cells.

The results of the HealthDay/Harris poll revealed that only 57% of participants were aware that the Zika infection could cause brain damage in babies born to infected women, and only 48% knew that mothers could infect their babies with the virus in utero.

According to Jeffrey S. Duchin, MD, it’s essential for pregnant women to understand that they can contract the Zika virus from mosquito bites if they travel to a Zika-affected area, or from a male sexual partner who has been to such an area. Fortunately, technicians can play a role in preventing this infection by referring expectant mothers, especially those with plans to travel, to their pharmacists.

“Pharmacists should take every opportunity to counsel patients who are traveling about the risk of Zika virus (and other travel-associated infections) and for pregnant women to postpone travel to Zika-affected areas,” Dr. Duchin previously told Pharmacy Times. “Pharmacists can also educate pregnant women about Zika risks from both travel and sex with a partner who has traveled.”

He added that pharmacists should encourage all patients to see a health care provider for testing if they have visited a Zika-affected area and experience symptoms within 2 weeks of returning from their trip. He also advised pharmacists to remind patients that almost 80% of Zika-infected patients will not present symptoms at all, and those who do will generally have mild symptoms, such as fever, rash, and joint pain.

3. Zika Spread Is Linked to Increased Interest in Abortion Pills

Likely because of the associated risk of birth defects, women in areas Zika-affected areas have expressed a growing interest in abortion medications, such as mifepristone and misoprostol.

A recent study, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, analyzed data from January 2010 to March 2016 on a resource called Women on Web (WoW) that offers abortion medications via telemedicine. Notably, abortion is illegal or heavily restricted in many of the 19 countries studied.

The researchers found that 11 countries (Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, and Venezuela) saw 36% to 108% increases in requests for abortion medication through WoW after the Pan American Health Organization issued an alert last fall advising women to avoid pregnancy because of the spread of the Zika virus.

Although the study authors acknowledged that Zika concerns may not be solely responsible for the increased interest, they emphasized the importance of access to birth control and safe abortions should the United States become heavily affected by the virus.

“If women in the US are cautioned to avoid pregnancy the way women in some Latin American countries have been, and then are given no means to help them avoid pregnancy or any reproductive options should pregnancy occur, we could well see the same fear, anxiety, and desperation we observed in our study,” lead author Abigail R.A. Aiken, MD, MPH, PhD, previously told Pharmacy Times.

4. A Zika Vaccine May Be on Its Way

Although no immunization is currently available for the prevention of Zika infection, Inovio Pharmaceuticals and GeneOne Life Science have received FDA approval to begin a human trial for Inovia’s Zika DNA vaccine GLS-5700. The phase 1, open-label trial will evaluate the vaccine’s safety, tolerability, and immunogenicity in 40 healthy participants.

In a press release, Inovio president and CEO J. Joseph Kim said the companies “plan to dose our first subjects in the next weeks and expect to report phase 1 interim results later this year.”

Despite the absence of an approved Zika vaccine, nearly 40% of the HealthDay/Harris poll participants believed that immunization was either very effective or somewhat effective in protecting against Zika.

Previously, the FDA issued an emergency authorization for Quest Diagnostic’s Zika Virus RNA Qualitative Real-Time RT-PCR test (Zika RT-PCR test), which is designed to detect RNA from the Zika virus in human serum specimen.