By now, most of us have heard of the scary disease that’s plaguing South America and is finding its way to the States: the Zika virus. Before it inevitably goes global, it’s important that we all understand what it is, what it does, and what we can do to prepare ourselves.
What is Zika virus and where has it spread?
Zika virus is a mosquito-borne virus that was first identified in the Zika forest of Uganda in 1947. The disease is transmitted primarily by Aedes mosquitoes (pictured below) and traveled throughout Western Africa and onward to Asia in the first half of the 20th century, plaguing most of the South Asian countries during the second half. It can also be spread sexually through an infected man to his partner, as the virus exists longer in semen than in blood.
The first large human Zika outbreak occurred in 2007 in the Pacific Island of Yap in the Federated States of Micronesia, where nearly 73% of the residents of the island were confirmed to be infected. The first confirmed report of Zika within the Americas occurred recently in May of 2015 in Brazil. In January of 2016, the World Health Organization predicted the Zika virus will spread throughout most of the Americas by the end of 2016 – this is scary!
What are the symptoms of Zika virus?
The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis—also known as red eyes. Symptoms usually last for several days to a week after being bitten by an infected mosquito, and infected people very rarely die of Zika. For this reason, many people might not realize they’ve been infected.
However, what has caught the attention of the world is that the Zika virus infection during pregnancy can cause a serious birth defect called microcephaly, as well as other severe fetal brain defects. A pregnant woman already infected with Zika can pass the virus to her fetus during the pregnancy or around the time of birth. Because the virus can be transmitted sexually via semen from a man to his partner, caution with sexual activity (condoms or abstinence) is advised to those infected and their partners.
Microcephaly literally translates to “small head”. Babies born to mothers infected with Zika are born with heads that are much smaller than expected due to abnormal brain development. Microcephaly has been linked to numerous other medical conditions including seizures, intellectual disability, developmental delay, hearing problems, and vision loss.
What does all of this mean?
With news of the virus making its way to the United States by later this year, it is important for us in the US to take precautions. When in swampy, marshy areas, take steps to prevent mosquito bites such as mosquito repellent and fully covering your body with cotton clothing. If you or your partner know they are infected with Zika virus, use physical protection such as a condom to prevent the sexual transmittance of the virus through semen. If you are traveling to an area known to have the presence of the Zika virus, visit CDC’s Travelers Health website to see if any traveler’s health notices are in place.
Currently, there are no vaccines to protect against Zika virus. Scientists across the globe are searching for cures for Zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses. Until a cure is found and approved, we have to be extra cautious to protect ourselves from acquiring the virus. Stay alert and knowledgable about symptoms and spread. Be informed about steps being taken to treat and cure the virus as they arise! And, of course, good luck.