By now, you’ve probably heard about the Zika virus, the mosquito-transmitted disease that is spreading widely in the Americas. Though it didn’t gain widespread media attention until this year, it was discovered in Africa back in 1947.
It wasn’t until last May in Brazil that the Zika virus reached outbreak stage, and almost no one in the Western Hemisphere had been infected until that time.
Typically, people infected with the Zika virus don’t get sick enough to go to the hospital, and it’s rare that they die of Zika. The illness’ most common symptoms are fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes, and they are usually mild, with symptoms lasting for several days to one week, according to the CDC.
The primary concern, though, is the link between the Zika virus and birth defects. These birth defects are what caused the CDC to urge pregnant women to avoid traveling to more than 20 countries in the Caribbean and South America.
What birth defects are linked to Zika?
There have been reports of microcephaly, a condition in which a baby’s head is smaller than expected compared to babies of the same age, being linked to mothers who were infected with the Zika virus while pregnant.
Though the CDC is still investigating this and other poor pregnancy outcomes, the agency recommends pregnant women postpone travel to anywhere the Zika virus transmission is ongoing.
Women who are trying to become pregnant should also consult with a doctor before traveling to a Zika-affected area.
How is the Zika virus spread?
The Zika virus is transmitted through the bite of infected mosquitoes.
It can also be transmitted from a pregnant mother to her fetus during pregnancy or around the time of birth.
The CDC also says it’s possible for the Zika virus to be transmitted sexually.
Are there any sexually-transmitted cases of the Zika virus in the U.S.?
As of February 2016, there have been three reports suggesting sexual transmission, according to the New York Times.
One of those reports occurred in the Dallas area, where a traveler returned from a trip to Venezuela, then had sex with someone who, in turn, tested positive for the virus, county health officials said.
Mosquito bites may be the primary way the Zika virus is transmitted, but the Dallas case led the CDC to advise men with a pregnant sex partner to use condoms or abstain from sex if they have traveled to Zika-affected countries. You can view additional guidelines from the CDC.
Am I at risk of becoming infected with Zika?
About 1 in 5 people infected with Zika become sick.
And as of Feb. 18, 2016, no mosquito-borne Zika virus disease cases have been reported in the U.S. — only travel-associated cases.
But the CDC says Zika virus cases in the U.S. will likely increase as more travelers visit and return from the Caribbean and Latin America, so it is possible to become infected with Zika in the United States.
What can I do to avoid becoming infected with Zika?
There is no vaccine, so the best way to avoid the Zika virus is to protect yourself from mosquito bites:
- Wear long-sleeve shirts and long pants
- Stay in places with air conditioning or that use window screens to keep mosquitoes outside
- Use insect repellents
What countries should pregnant women avoid?
As of Feb. 18, there are 31 countries and territories – from Mexico to Brazil and in between – with active Zika virus transmission.
What should I do if I’m experiencing Zika symptoms?
The Zika virus is usually mild and won’t require specific treatment. And while there is no vaccine or specific medicine to treat Zika, the CDC advises treating Zika virus symptoms in the following manner:
- Get plenty of rest
- Drink fluids to prevent dehydration
- Take medicine like acetaminophen to reduce fever and pain
- If you’re taking medicine for a separate medical condition, speak with your doctor before taking any additional medication.
- If you’re pregnant and develop the symptoms consistent with Zika virus, you should see a doctor.
To make sure others don’t get sick from the Zika virus, avoid mosquito bites during the first week of illness. That’s when the Zika virus can be found in the blood and passed from an infected person to another person.
For health alerts related to the Zika virus, visit the CDC’s Zika information center.