Sixteen months have passed since the Pan American Health Organization issued the first alert regarding Zika virus infection in Brazil, reports the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). While the media did not really begin discussing Zika until earlier this year, Zika has become a critical concern for much of Latin America and the southern states. In late July, authorities were advising pregnant women to avoid Miami Beach, and now, more than just the threat of the flu season weighs on the minds of seniors.
Can Zika Infect Seniors?
Zika has grown synonymous with avoiding tropical areas for pregnant women, but even the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends seniors and people with compromised immune systems should avoid travel to Zika hot zones. In reality, Zika can infect anyone bitten by a Zika-carrying Aëdes aegypti mosquito, and Zika is becoming a key concern for seniors. While the risk is nothing like the risk to an unborn child, Zika can have possibly life-threatening effects in seniors, such as Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS).
What Are the Symptoms of Zika in Seniors?
The symptoms of Zika infection in seniors mirror the symptoms of Zika infection in young adults. Most people experience generally mild symptoms, which include the following:
- Joint pain
- Red eyes
However, the possible symptoms may also include symptoms that mimic influenza, such as nausea, vomiting or fatigue. As a result, seniors may be incapable of distinguishing between Zika and influenza infection, which could cause serious complications.
Can Zika Cause Complications in Seniors?
Zika’s primary complications in adults are currently being studied, but some severe complications have occurred almost without warning, explains AARP. Some adults who have been infected with Zika suffer from temporary hearing loss, vertigo, and even GBS. However, the risk of GBS appears to be heightened in older adults. Further evidence of this stronger risk can be seen in Puerto Rico, which has experienced a sudden hike in Zika infection and cases of Guillain-Barre.
Guillain-Barre is a type of autoimmune response to a specific antigen, and the person’s immune system attacks different parts of the nervous system, including the brain. In addition, some seniors who have suffered from GBS end up with weakness in the lower extremities or even paralysis. Consequently, the risk of complications in seniors from Zika is much more severe than many first surmised.
What Do Seniors Need to Do to Prevent Zika Contraction?
Seniors must vigilant of their surrounding in order to avoid contracting Zika. This includes avoiding regions where Zika outbreaks have been documented, including the lower half of the U.S. However, this may be an impractical solution for seniors who already live in these areas, but a few actions can help alleviate the risk as well, which include the following:
- Stay on top of wellness health visits and vaccinations. Seniors should maintain a regular appointment schedule with their treating physician, and all vaccinations should be kept current. As of now, there is not a vaccine available for Zika, but pre-existing vaccines for other tropical illness are currently being modified to test for effectiveness against Zika.
- Wear appropriate attire and mosquito repellent. When going outdoors during the morning or evening hours, seniors should wear pants and long-sleeve tops. This will help to reduce the risk of being infected. Furthermore, seniors should apply a DEET-containing insect repellent, but seniors with skin allergies or respiratory problems should check with their caregivers for possible interactions with this aerosol.
- Do not travel to Zika hot zones. Seniors should avoid traveling to Latin America or the southern states if possible. As a result, they may be in areas throughout the winter where the risk of flu infection is higher.
What Can Senior Caregivers Do to Help?
Senior caregivers can help prevent Zika infection in seniors by encouraging seniors to follow the three steps mentioned in the previous section. However, a few other actions are needed as well.
- Senior care education materials must be updated to reflect the possible risk of seniors contracting Zika. This should include a review of Zika symptoms and indicators of GBS.
- Senior care facilities must maintain safety of vaccinations. Many vaccinations require refrigeration and monitoring of expiration dates to be effective. As a result, senior caregiver facilities must take greater care in monitoring the expiration dates of vaccines and ensuring any other storage requirements are met, explains the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- Senior caregivers may also take on roles that would not be traditionally assigned to caregivers. For example, home health care aides may be asked to check for and drain areas of standing water around a senior’s home, such as empty flower pots, pet dishes or lawn ornaments. Do not worry about draining swimming pools or hot tubs; chemicals in pool water prevent mosquitoes from reproducing in them.
- Maintain accurate documentation of seniors’ complaints and states of health. This step is essential to recognizing the signs of Zika infection as soon as possible.
Putting It All Together
Zika is a real threat to seniors this year. Some seniors do enjoy spending the winter months in the warmer areas, but the risk of Zika will be there as well. By understanding what actions need to be taken, you can help to reduce the prevalence of Zika infection among seniors, which could ultimately be life-saving to seniors already living with known health problems or compromised immune systems.