What We Know and Don't Know About Zika Virus and How To Take Precautions

Danielle Dent-Breen's picture
Zika virus mosquito

Last year, the headlines were everywhere warning us of the dangers of Zika Virus. This “new” and terrifying mosquito-borne illness captured our attention, as we learned it is harmful to the most vulnerable amongst us—pregnant women and babies. Researchers have discovered some information about how this virus is transmitted, how it affects us, and what we still don’t know. Read on to learn how you can be informed and take precautions to avoid being infected during mosquito season.

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What is Zika Virus, anyway?

Zika virus is a mosquito-borne virus that is most commonly spread by the bite of an Aedes species mosquito. This particular species will bite both during the day and at night. Zika can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus, and infection during pregnancy can cause certain birth defects. There is, thankfully, no evidence that past Zika infection poses an increased risk of birth defects in future pregnancies.

Zika virus is not actually new. It was first identified in Uganda in 1947 in monkeys through a network that monitored yellow fever. It was later identified in humans in 1952 in Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania. Outbreaks of Zika virus disease have been recorded in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific, but it was in 2015 that scientists in Brazil first identified an association between Zika virus and long-term human illness. They identified a connection between Zika and Guillain-Barré in July 2015, and in October, further identified the connection with microcephaly for children born to women infected during their pregnancies.

How is the Zika Virus transmitted?

The primary mode of transmission for Zika virus is through the bite of infected mosquitoes. However, unlike other mosquito-borne illnesses, Zika can also be transmitted sexually. Anyone who lives or travels to an area with active mosquito transmission of Zika is at risk for contracting the virus, as is anyone who has sexual contact with a person who has traveled to Zika-affected areas. At this point, Zika appears to be mostly localized in warm-weather climates, but because Zika can be transmitted sexually person-to-person and transmitted in any climate by the Aedes-species mosquitoes, cases of Zika virus have been reported across the United States, including cool-climate areas not typically associated with mosquito-borne illnesses.

What are the risks of Zika Virus infection?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the most common symptoms of Zika infection are mild, and may include fever, rash, headache, joint pain, red eyes, and muscle pain. Many people who are infected with Zika virus may never even know that they have been infected.

Death from Zika virus is exceedingly rare. Serious complications, however, have been identified.

Guillain-Barré Syndrome. In some people infected with Zika virus, infection has been linked to the development of Guillain-Barré syndrome. Guillain-Barré is a condition where the body’s immune system attacks nerve cells, resulting in muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis. Most people eventually recover from Guillain-Barré, but some people are left with permanent effects from it.

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Birth Defects. If a woman is infected during pregnancy, Zika virus can cause serious birth defects, like microcephaly and other structural brain abnormalities. Microcephaly is a condition where a baby is born with an unusually small head due to stunted growth and destruction of brain tissue in utero. Microcephaly causes significant lifelong delays in physical and intellectual development, including impairments in learning, hearing, and vision. It should be noted that not every child whose mother is infected during pregnancy will be born with a birth defect. Scientists are still unclear with regard to the association between the mother’s infection with Zika virus and the severity of symptoms in the baby.

Miscarriage.
Infection during the beginning of the first trimester may result in miscarriage. Tragically, many of these women may not even actually yet know they are pregnant.

Developmental Delays.
For infected babies born with no visible birth defects, there may be a milder spectrum of adverse outcomes that scientists have not yet identified, such as learning and social behavior disorders. These types of problems don’t show up on an ultrasound and may only become apparent years later.

Male Infertility. There appears to be strong evidence that the virus might impact male fertility, as it can persist in the testes and seminal fluid for months after recovery from symptoms. In any case, men who have traveled to areas at risk for Zika virus infection are advised to refrain from unprotected sex for at least 6 months following travel, as the virus can remain active in the semen for this long. Again, the symptoms of Zika virus infection can be so mild that many infected persons will not know that they have been infected. The only way to know for sure is to see your doctor. He or she will perform a blood or urine test to confirm or rule out a diagnosis.

How can I avoid becoming infected with Zika Virus?

As of this time, there is no effective treatment for Zika virus, and no vaccine to prevent it. Most people who are infected will recover within a week, and a single infection appears to protect against any subsequent infections in the future. For now, the best way to prevent Zika virus is to minimize your risk of exposure.

Vacation Smart:
The most effective way to prevent infection is to avoid traveling to areas where Zika virus is known to exist. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website provides a world map showing locations where Zika is spreading, along with travel guidance for pregnant women and couples who are planning to conceive in the near future. This map is updated regularly to reflect real-time risks of exposure.


Protect yourself and your family from being bitten.

Wear long sleeves and long pants when possible. Always spray clothing and exposed skin with an EPA approved insect repellent. Remember, mosquitoes bite during the day and during the night. (Bonus: the right insect repellent will also protect your family from tick-borne illnesses, too!) Remove standing water outside your home to eliminate mosquito breeding areas. Use screens on windows and air-conditioning when possible.

Practice safer sex.
If you or your partner have traveled to an area with a risk of Zika virus transmission, you should abstain from all forms of unprotected sexual contact for a period of time to prevent transmission to the other partner. Women are advised to abstain for 8 weeks following travel, and because the virus can live longer in semen, men should abstain for a period of six months. Couples should avoid conception during this time. Remember, Zika can be transmitted sexually, even if there are no physical symptoms of infection. Couples who are trying to or interested in becoming pregnant should discuss their plans for pregnancy with a healthcare provider to determine their risk and the options available.

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