You’ve seen it on the news and read about it in the paper: Zika virus is spreading, and quickly. And it may have something to do with microencephaly. It is natural to wonder: Will this affect me? A current or planned pregnancy? My children?
If you live in the U.S. and have not traveled to – or had sexual contact with someone who has traveled to – an affected area, the short answer is: no. Thus far, the CDC logs zero reported cases of locally acquired mosquito-borne Zika within the United States (this count does not include U.S. territories, which report 9 such cases).
But it is still good to be informed, especially if you plan to travel to an affected area, so we’ve put together the following FAQs.
What do I need to know about Zika virus?
- Zika virus is a mosquito-borne disease.
- About 20% of people infected with the virus will fall ill.
- Generally, the virus causes only a minor reaction. It is rarely fatal.
- Zika virus can stay alive in bodily fluids such semen, saliva, urine, and breast milk, and has been transmitted through sex at least once – and likely more than that – in the United States.
- Recently, the virus has been associated with newborn microencephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare neurological condition causing temporary paralysis.
- The World Health Organization has deemed the recent spike in cases an international public health emergency.
What is the history of Zika virus? What is happening in South America now?
Zika virus was first discovered in a rhesus monkey in Uganda in the late 1940s, with the first-known human case diagnosed in Nigeria in the mid 1950s. The virus was limited to equatorial Africa and southeast Asia until May 2015, when it appeared in Brazil and quickly spread through Southern and Central America. This recent outbreak is the largest on record and spikes in cases of newborn microencephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome in the affected areas have many worried.
What should I watch out for?
Again: if you live in the U.S. and have not traveled to (or had sex with someone who as traveled to) an affected region, you have no reason to watch for or worry about symptoms. Again, though, it’s good to be informed:
- The Zika incubation period normally lasts 312 days with about 70% of those infected exhibiting no symptoms.
- Symptoms include fever with muscle aches, rash, and conjunctivitis (red eyes).
- Hydration and rest are the normal course of action, as there is currently no treatment.
- The fever is diagnosed through a serum test that can only be performed by a medical professional.
How do I prevent it?
There is no vaccine for Zika. Thus, the most effective prevention is simply to avoid being bitten by mosquitos that might carry the disease.
When traveling to affected regions avoid mosquito bites by:
- Using repellent.
- Wearing long sleeves and pants (especially during daylight hours).
- Using window and door screens to keep mosquitoes outside.
You should also avoid sex with someone who has traveled to an affected area, especially if you are pregnant, until they have been cleared by their doctor.
What is the connection between pregnancy and Zika virus?
Pregnant women seem to be most at risk for complications caused by Zika virus. Most notably: there has been an increase in reports of a serious birth defect called microencephaly in the babies of mothers who had Zika virus while pregnant. Microencephaly is a condition in which the baby’s head is much smaller than expected because the brain has not developed properly. Cases of microencephaly range in severity, and can cause seizures, developmental delays, intellectual disability, hearing and vision loss, and even death. The CDC recommends that pregnant women and their partners postpone traveling to any area where Zika virus is present.
As with any serious health illness, individuals should discuss their specific risks with a doctor to ensure that any increased risk factors they may have are specifically addressed.
References and further reading:
CDC Overview: http://www.cdc.gov/zika/
Zika Virus Timeline: http://www.npr.org/sections/healthshots/2016/02/10/466127813/zikaviruswhathappenedwhen