What Is Zika Virus — And What Should I Know About It?

posted: 01/21/16
by: Mara Betsch

You've probably seen news reports about a new, and fast-spreading, Zika virus. And while it has been a big issue in Central and South America, the first few cases have crept up in the United States. Though the disease isn't usually life-threatening, it can have some negative effects on babies born to mother infected with the disease. Read on to learn what Zika Virus is and what you can do to keep your family healthy.

How is Zika virus spread?

It's transmitted through the bite of the Aedes aegypti (aka "yellow fever") mosquito, which is known to also spread dengue and chikungunya. This particular mosquito is active during the daytime, when people are out and about. There is no vaccine, and the only way to avoid the disease is to avoid getting mosquito bites. About one in five people who get infected with Zika develop symptoms.

What are the symptoms?

Only about 20 percent of patients display symptoms. Fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis are the most common symptoms, but it's a relatively mild illness for the most part.

So why is everyone freaking out?

Though Zika isn't usually life-threatening, Brazil has reported what seems to be a strong link between pregnant women who were infected with Zika and the risk of the children they were carrying developing microcephaly, a neurological condition that causes an infant's head to be smaller than normal as well as a number of developmental delays. Since the number of Zika cases have risen, doctors have seen 20 times more cases of microcephaly cases than they normally do.

Where is it happening?

Brazil is experiencing the largest outbreak, with a large increase in infections and five baby deaths attributed to the disease. However, other Latin American and Caribbean countries are seeing increases in cases, and the CDC issued a travel alert for the following countries. Check back since they update their travel notices each week:

  • Brazil
  • Colombia
  • El Salvador
  • French Guiana
  • Guatemala
  • Haiti
  • Honduras
  • Martinique
  • Mexico
  • Panama
  • Paraguay
  • Puerta Rico
  • Suriname
  • Venezuela

Is it in the United States yet?

Update: Yes, as of January 28, a total of 30 cases have been reported in the United States, including three in New York City.WHO officials warn that it's spreading "explosively" and urge pregnant women to not travel to those regions in which it is most prevalent. Though a "local transmission" case -- that means the mosquito was in the area -- was reported in Puerto Rico (technically a U.S. territory), the only cases known in the United States have occurred in people who have traveled to higher-risk areas.

If I get Zika while pregnant, will I pass it to my baby?

It's possible. According to the CDC, you may be able pass the virus from mother to child, but it's still being investigated.

What about breastfeeding?

Currently, there are no reports that show you can pass the Zika virus through breastfeeding.

If I've had Zika virus, will it affect future pregnancies?

According the CDC, you should be safe. "Zika virus infection does not pose a risk of birth defects for future pregnancies. Zika virus usually remains in the blood of an infected person for only a few days to a week. The virus will not cause infections in a baby that is conceived after the virus is cleared from the blood."

So what can I do to prevent Zika virus?

If you're pregnant, avoid traveling to areas put on alert by the CDC. But if you have to travel, avoid mosquito bites by wearing long-sleeve shirts and pants, wearing insect repellant (here's the EPA's guide for choosing a safe one), and sleeping in screened-in or air conditioned rooms.