In a special report on the history and spread of the now notorious Zika virus, The New York Times revealed that it was first detected in New York City in December 2013 when a 48-year-old man visited a medical clinic with a rash on his torso.
The patient had just returned from an extensive trip to Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Hawaii, Easter Island, and French Polynesia. Zika virus started spreading through French Polynesia in October 2013, and the virus' first official appearance in the Western Hemisphere was on Easter Island, according to the Times.
Dyan J. Summers, the nurse who examined the patient, told the Times that she initially thought the patient had dengue fever — a similar but deadlier virus that spreads through the same type of mosquito that carries Zika. It was actually the patient who first brought up the possibility that he had Zika virus, which caught the nurse off guard: "I'd heard of Zika, but nobody was thinking about Zika," Summers told the Times.
The patient was a well-informed, frequent traveler who had read about Zika virus in a Polynesian newspaper. Summers took blood samples from the patient during the initial visit and then 20 days later and sent both to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sure enough, he had Zika virus.
The "very bright patient," as the Times referred to him, did more research on the infection and discovered an earlier instance in Colorado where a man who had recently returned from Africa gave his wife Zika virus, which suggested that the virus might be transmitted through sexual contact.
Summers recommended the patient avoid having unprotected sex with his common-law wife, the Times reported; which, when you think about it, was incredibly shrewd advice. They were dealing with Zika more than two years before any major attention was given to what it is, how it spreads, and what consequences come with it.
And even now, as Zika takes over headlines, we still have a lot to learn. We know it can be spread by both mosquitos and semen, but it's unclear if the same goes for urine and saliva. The connection between Zika and microcephaly — the birth defect that causes babies to have small heads and underdeveloped brains — has been established, but it's still largely unknown territory and requires much more research.
With that in mind, let's imitate the New York City patient: Stay educated and follow precautions, but don't flip out, either. Avoid having unprotected sex, don't travel to areas that have confirmed cases of Zika, and take measures to keep mosquitos at bay.
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