For many people, summer is synonymous with beach vacations, barbecues, and family time. This summer, a new synonym is taking over our vocabulary: Zika virus. Here’s what you need to know to keep yourself and your family safe this summer.
What is the Zika virus?
The virus was discovered in the Zika Forest in Uganda in 1947. The first human infection was recorded in 1952. Since then, Zika virus infections have been reported in tropical Africa, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and most recently in South America. In May of 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Zika virus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).
A PHEIC is defined as “an extraordinary event which is determined, as provided in these Regulations:
- to constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease; and
- to potentially require a coordinated international response. This definition implies a situation that: is serious, unusual or unexpected; carries implications for public health beyond the affected State’s national border; and may require immediate international action.”
Events with this designation come with special attention and international response all over the world. In the case of the Zika virus, this may include spraying for mosquitos (the primary carrier) and issuing educational alerts over public access communications channels (e.g., social media, the radio, and through community health organizations).
How do you contract the Zika virus?
The Zika virus is a virus that is spread primarily through the Ae. aegypti and Ae. Albopictus species of mosquitos. These are the same species that spread the dengue and chikungunya viruses. Mosquitos contract the infection when they bite an infected person. They can then go on to infect whomever they bite next.
The virus can also be transmitted from a pregnant woman to her fetus. The infection can be transmitted in utero or shortly after birth, but there are no reports of breastfeeding as a method of transmission.
The Zika virus can also be transmitted via sexual intercourse from a man to his partner. This method of transmission is especially dangerous as the virus can be transmitted before symptoms of the Zika virus are present and days after symptoms resolve. The Zika virus is viable in semen longer than it is in blood, so a man with Zika has a longer period of time to spread the virus when infected.
The final two methods of transmission are through blood transfusions and in the laboratory where Zika is present, but there are few cases reported and confirmed in either method.
What are symptoms and side effects of the Zika virus?
The Zika virus shares symptoms with other types of mosquito-borne illness, like dengue. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, but some of those infected show no symptoms at all. Some of the most common symptoms include:
- Joint pain
- Conjunctivitis (red eyes)
- Muscle pain
The incubation period of the virus can range from a few days to several weeks. For most people symptoms are so mild that they don’t even know that they have been infected. There are no reported deaths from the Zika virus.
While the symptoms may seem mild, there is one major side effect for a very specific population: birth defects in infected fetuses. The Zika virus can cause a very serious birth defect called microcephaly, as well as other severe fetal brain defects. These birth defects are not fatal but result in a lifetime of disability that makes it impossible for a child to grow into a person who can care for themselves.
Who is most at risk?
People living in areas with recorded outbreaks of the Zika virus are most at risk. These areas include tropical and semi-tropical climates that feature warm, humid air that is a perfect habitat for mosquitos. The WHO predicts that the Zika virus will spread to northern Argentina and the United States, infecting millions of people by the end of 2016.
While pregnant women are not more at risk than any other demographic, the severe nature of the side effects on the fetus make them a particularly vulnerable population. The WHO recommends that all pregnant women who live in or travel to infected areas get tested for the Zika virus.
Those who have unprotected sex are also at risk for human transmission of the Zika virus.
How do you protect yourself and your family from the Zika virus?
There are different methods to protect yourself and your family from the Zika virus. If you are sexually active, use condoms to prevent sexual transmission of the disease.
For mosquito-borne transmission, there are a few simple steps you can take.
- Eliminate standing water: Mosquitos breed in standing water, so dumping out bird baths, flower pots, and other standing water can help minimize the population.
- Wear proper clothing: Long-sleeved shirts and long pants will discourage mosquito bites. Clothing treated with permethrin can also help repel mosquitos.
- Stay inside: When possible, limit activity during the hours of highest mosquito activity. The types of mosquitos that transmit the Zika virus can be aggressive in the middle of the day, but in general the times of highest mosquito activity are at dawn and dusk.
- Sleep under mosquito netting: If you are unable to sleep indoors, use mosquito netting over your bed.
- Use insect repellant: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has registered insect repellantswith one of the following active ingredients: DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, or para-menthane-diol. These ingredients are generally recognized as safe for pregnant women and children over the age of three.
There are many myths surrounding the Zika virus. In most cases the virus is uncomfortable but not fatal and results in immunity when it is resolved. Pregnant women in affected countries are understandably concerned for the health of their unborn children. It is important to get the facts, including options for prevention and treatment.
For more information on the Zika virus, including a list of countries with ongoing outbreaks, plus tips for travelers to prevent Zika, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Zika virus page.