What is the Zika virus?
The Zika virus is an infection usually transmitted by mosquitos and is related to dengue, yellow fever, and the West Nile virus. Believed to be common across Asia and Africa, where many have immunity, it only recently began spreading widely in the Western Hemisphere. Common symptoms include fever, rash, conjunctivitis, sensitivity to light, headaches, and joint pains. Although 4 out of 5 victims report no symptoms and most that do recover within a week or so, there are some rare but serious nervous system complications.
What makes it so dangerous?
For most people it’s not—but it’s a huge concern if you’re pregnant or have a sexual partner who might become pregnant soon. Women can transmit the virus to their fetus during pregnancy or at delivery. It then attacks fetal nerve cells, including some that form the brain. This can cause a severe form of microcephaly (the baby is born with an unusually small head) along with a host of other adverse effects, including constant seizures, ear and eye nerve damage, or permanently rigid limbs.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 1 in 100 pregnant women with Zika will go on to have babies with these abnormalities, with infection most likely to be damaging in the first trimester.
There is also no vaccine for Zika, and no way to treat this kind of brain damage should it occur.
How do people get Zika?
The primary way Zika is spread is through mosquitoes of the Aedes genus, which can breed in small pools of water (like puddles) and usually bite during the day. One species in particular, Aedes aegypti, prefers biting people and accounts for most infections. So far the biggest outbreak has been in Brazil; in the United States, we’ve only had a limited number of mosquito-acquired cases, all in Florida, reported thus far. The genus is common in the United States throughout the Gulf Coast area, and has been found as far north as Connecticut during the summer.
We also know that Zika can be spread through sex. There have been a limited number of confirmed cases of sexual transmission across the globe involving all forms of intercourse.
People can also contract Zika through blood transfusions—there have been multiple reports of this in Brazil, and currently parts of Florida are no longer accepting blood donations to minimize this possibility.
Is it dangerous to travel to Zika-afflicted areas?
Pregnant women are advised by the CDC not to travel to areas of ongoing Zika virus transmission, while their sexual partners who live in or travel to these areas should either abstain from or practice safe sex for the duration of their pregnancy. The best way to protect yourself from the virus and reduce its spread is to prevent mosquito bites. This can be done by wearing clothes that cover the body as much as possible, using insect repellant, using physical barriers (doors, windows, etc.), and identifying and eliminating potential mosquito breeding sites (buckets, flower pots, etc.).