If you have been reading headlines lately, you have likely seen headlines about the zika virus—and perhaps those headlines have been somewhat frightening. The World Health Organization recently named the virus a global health emergency Zika virus cases have been exponentially rising in some parts of the world—Brazil and Jamaica, in particular, which is causing some of the headlines. There have been isolated cases in the U.S. so far, caused by travel to countries where the virus is widespread. These cases have shown up in Florida, Arkansas, California, Virginia, Minnesota, Illinois, New Jersey, Texas, and New York, and Hawaii.
The headlines in the U.S., however, primarily center around the potential risk to pregnant women. Health professionals in countries with infection believe that there may be a link between microcephaly, a birth defect causing babies to be born with unusually small brains, and mothers infected with zika. There is some concern that the virus may also be linked with Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can lead to paralysis.
It is important to know the facts about the zika virus: what it is, how it is spread, treatment, what the risk is, and—most importantly—how you can protect yourself.
Zika virus: what is it and how is it spread?
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), zika is a disease spread primarily via mosquito bites. In early February, the CDC announced that there is one reported case in the U.S. of its being spread through sexual contact. However, even while recommending that people use condoms in response to this new risk, the CDC also took pains to emphasize that avoiding mosquito bites is the most important preventive action. The ability of the virus to travel via sexual contact is currently being studied, and information will be forthcoming when it becomes available.
The symptoms are rash, fever, pain in the joints, and conjunctivitis (eyes that are red). The overwhelming majority of people who contract it—80%–do not experience any symptoms at all. It is very rarely fatal.
There is no antiviral agent that will alleviate symptoms and there is no vaccine for it. There is no specific test to tell whether you have it. People who go to their doctors or to hospitals with symptoms of the disease are told to rest and drink plenty of water. Symptoms usually go away within a few days to a week.
The risk in the United States
So far, no case of zika has been reported to have begun in the United States. Because the virus is spread through mosquito bites, health authorities do not consider the isolated travel-related cases to be involved in spread of the disease.
However, travelers, especially pregnant women, should be aware of the potential risk involved in travel. The CDC has a travel advisory page that people who are planning a trip or who must travel should consult.
Pregnant women and the risk
As noted above, several health organizations are concerned that there is a link between a large increase in the number of babies born with microcephaly, abnormally small brains, particularly in Brazil, and the increase in reports of zika infection. However, the link is far from proven; the rise in reports of microcephaly might also be due to increased awareness of the disease over the past decade. Scientific investigations into the causal factors of the rise in the birth defect are ongoing.
However, because of the possible link, the CDC recommends that pregnant women not travel to countries that have reported an infection, to be on the safe side.
How can you protect yourself?
You can protect yourself from potential infection in the U.S. by protecting against mosquitos and using condoms. As noted above, there have been no reported cases that began in the U.S. However, it is best to be on the safe side. The mosquitos that cause zika also cause two other viral diseases, dengue and chikungunya. So protecting yourself against mosquito bites is the safest thing you can do.
First, make sure that your doors, windows and patios are covered with screens. If the screens have a rip or tear, make sure it is repaired.
Second, use insect repellent! Use the type the Environmental Protection Agency recommends and use it whenever you go outside.
Third, dress in light-colored clothing so you can see mosquitos if they land. Wear long-sleeved clothes and socks so that mosquitos cannot bite you.
Fourth, clothing and household and outdoor items can be treated with permethrin, an insecticide used as a cream. You can also buy items that have already been treated with permethrin.