What it feels like to learn you’ve been infected with Zika
It’s one thing to read about the potential health issues that stem from Zika infection when you’re not directly affected. It’s another thing, however, to consider them when you have been diagnosed with Zika, and particularly if your infection occurred at a time when family planning was at stake.
This interview with Dr. Carl Schreck III, a research assistant professor at the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites at North Carolina State University, provides a sense of what it’s like to learn you’ve been infected with Zika and the implications it can have. Schreck was bit by a Zika-carrying mosquito while attending the American Meteorological Society’s Conference on Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology in Puerto Rico in April, 2016.
“I went to my doctor and he laughed off Zika at first. But my wife and I were thinking about having a second baby, so after a couple days he did a blood test and it came back positive.”
1. Were you concerned about Zika prior to traveling to Puerto Rico this past spring?
At first no, but later yes. My initial reaction was that I’m not a pregnant woman, so it doesn’t matter for me. Even when I heard that it could be transmitted sexually, it didn’t initially register that I could get it and pass it to my wife, who could transmit it to a fetus if we tried to have a baby. We have a 3-year-old and really want to try for another kid. My wife’s a teacher, so this summer would’ve worked out perfectly to try.
Before the trip, the guidance I saw was that men shouldn’t try to have kids within 8 weeks of returning. The conference was in April, so even 8 weeks wouldn’t really affect our family planning. It wasn’t until I got back and had symptoms that I learned of the new guidance of 6+ months for men who test positive.
2. Did you do anything “extra” to lower your chance of infection (bug repellent, clothing, etc)?
No, I meant to bring DEET, but I wasn’t sure if it was allowed on planes. I was going to buy it at the hotel instead, but my flight got in late and I forgot. I was great about sunscreen every day, but I don’t know why I never got bug spray.
3. How did you first find out you were infected?
I had a rash on my torso and arms. I first noticed it after mowing the lawn, so I thought it might be poison ivy, but it didn’t itch. I went to my doctor and he laughed off Zika at first. But my wife and I were thinking about having a second baby, so after a couple days he did a blood test and it came back positive.
4. What kind of symptoms did you have, if any, and how long did they last?
Just the rash. Maybe some fatigue. They lasted about 3–7 days.
5. What kind of test did you take that confirmed infection?
Just a blood test. But I've since enrolled in a CDC study to track how long it stays in my system. I send them urine and semen samples every two weeks. I was hoping the CDC would tell me when I'm clean, but they're worried about false-negatives. So they won't tell me my results until the 6 months are up. But at least then I'll know with one hundred percent certainty if I'm clean.
6. What was your reaction when you tested positive?
Frustrated. As I mentioned, we were really hoping to try for another kid this summer. Having to wait until November is a challenge with my wife's teaching schedule. We still haven't decided what we'll do then. I also under-estimated how people would react to hearing that I was positive. Some of my coworkers are pregnant and were worried about being around me, even though I was no longer contagious to mosquitoes by the time I told them. Plus there are no mosquitoes in our office building. Other folks were expecting to hear that it was much worse/dangerous for me.
7. What are your thoughts about the Zika virus health crisis in general having experienced it firsthand?
That it's getting simultaneously too much and too little attention. It's not Ebola, it shouldn't be feared in that same way. It doesn't really affect adults. But at the same time, it's much easier to transmit than Ebola because of the mosquito side. And it's sad that babies with life-threatening defects just aren't as newsworthy as people whose faces are bleeding.