Researchers now believe there is a link between the Zika virus and Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), as new cases of GBS are rising in areas with corresponding Zika outbreaks. There are no vaccines or proven cures for either Zika or GBS, but there are immune system and neurological treatments that can help people who contract Zika-related GBS.
Here's what you need to know about Zika-caused GBS in the U.S. and the treatments available for it:
The mosquitoes who carry Zika have limited powers
There are several types of mosquitoes that carry Zika, but most cannot overwinter in places with freezing temperatures. For this reason, they don't pose a threat to most parts of the U.S. except during the summer season. People in Florida, Texas and Hawaii are at a greater risk than people in other states, since the weather in parts of these states is warm enough to encourage winter breeding and feeding by Zika-carrying mosquitoes.
The good news is that outbreaks are normally confined to small localized neighborhoods. Mosquitoes tend to stick around a limited home turf. Some will travel only as far as 0.2 miles, or 400 meters. An outbreak in a neighboring town doesn't necessarily mean the virus is heading your way, but it does mean conditions are ripe for an outbreak in your general area. You should take steps to protect yourself from mosquito bites by using repellents and eliminating breeding areas around your home.
GBS can fool patients and doctors
GBS is a neurological disorder that can mimic other neurological diseases and conditions. The cause of GBS is the patient's own immune system attacking their nerve cells and causing symptoms including muscle weakness or even paralysis. In a small number of cases, patients die as a result of GBS. However, only a small number of people who contract Zika will also develop GBS. Your physician or neurologist will conduct tests to determine if GBS is indeed the diagnosis if you are suffering neurological impairment and you have also recently been exposed to Zika.
The syndrome can start out with a general feeling of sickness similar to enduring a touch of the flu. Either slowly or rapidly the patient may begin to lose balance and function of their extremities. In more severe cases, GBS patients need intensive medical support to assist them in breathing and obtaining nourishment.
Treatments for Zika-related GBS are few
Physicians will treat the symptoms of Zika virus as they would most cases of influenza by providing fluids, breathing support if needed and other therapies to help the patient heal. Many patients will recover completely while others may have lasting problems from Zika exposure. In the same way, some GBS patients will recover fully while others have lifelong issues with mobility and nerve damage.
If you are diagnosed with GBS, your neurologist, primary physician or other specialist may administer IV immune globulin for several days to help tame your immune system. This treatment is most effective if given in the first two weeks. Another therapy for GBS is plasma exchange. This "cleans" the blood and may help flush the immune system to keep it from attacking healthy nerve cells. Physical therapy, ongoing diagnostic testing and neurological support are also keys to the most effective GBS treatment.
Zika may be posing new challenges, but new drugs and treatment approaches are being developed by researchers to help patients with neurological disorders recover as fully as possible no matter what the cause.
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