The Zika virus made headlines when an outbreak started in Brazil in early 2015. The virus quickly spread over the Americas and the islands of the South Pacific and Southeast Asia. In February, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak the fourth Public Health Emergency of International Concern. Significant evidence suggests Zika can cause both birth defects and neurological disorders.
The Public Health Emergency declaration expired on November 18, 2016, but the WHO and Center for Disease Control still council vigilance, and many travel warnings are still in place.
As tends to happen with any outbreak, a lot of misinformation has spread. You may have heard rumors about the Zika virus spreading to every state in the US. Rumors like these might make you think twice about visiting your family over the holidays. We want to give you the knowledge you need to understand Zika and keep your family safe from it. When all this information laid out, we hope you can take precautions, put your mind at ease, and enjoy your holiday!
What is the Zika Virus?
Zika is a virus of the family Flaviviridae. Like other viruses within this family, Zika occurs in and is spread by anthropod vectors such as mosquitos and ticks. Unfortunately, humans host it once it infects us. Other viruses in the Flaviviridae family related to Zika include dengue, West Nile virus, and Japanese encephalitis.
The Zika virus derives its name from the Zika forest in Uganda, which is where scientists first isolated the disease in 1947. Since its discovery, cases of human-Zika infection have occurred throughout much of Africa and Southeast Asia, plus the Americas. Carriers of the virus will come down with an infection called “Zika fever” or “Zika Virus disease.”
How It Spreads
By far the most common way the Zika virus spreads is via the bite of infected Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes. The virus enters a person’s bloodstream via the mosquito’s bite. Mosquitoes may become infected with the Zika virus by ingesting the blood of an infected person. Then they spread the Virus by biting a different person. That's how the virus spreads: from person to mosquito to other person.
The worst thing about the Zika virus is how it passes from a pregnant woman to her fetus during pregnancy or near the time of birth. There is no evidence that Zika may be transmitted to a baby via breastfeeding, however.
Humans also transmit Zika via sexual contact, fluid exchange, or blood transfusion. The infected person can spread the virus even if they aren't showing symptoms of the fever at the time of contact.
Where Is It?
Both the CDC and WHO have published maps detailing specifically the continents, countries, and territories where infections of the Zika virus have been reported. WHO also provides an exhaustive list of countries and territories where infections have been reported, categorized into three sub-sections of severity. Information on the specific conditions of particular territories may be found here. To get travel notices and up-to-date information about your home or the place you’re visited, see the CDC’s Zika Travel Information hub and Travel Health Notices.
Consult this information if you are travelling over the holidays to see what precautions you should take. This is especially important if you or a member of your family is pregnant or if you are travelling outside of the country. Use the CDC and WHO to find current and accurate information about Zika incidents in each location you’re traveling to. Here is a map of Zika-related incidents occurring in each state in the US. As of December 2016, the only locally reported cases of Zika in the US have been reported in South Florida. The CDC has issued specific instructions for people travelling to Florida. Pregnant women should avoid travelling to any Zika-infected areas, regardless of trimester or current health.
Risk and Symptoms
Symptoms resulting from the Zika virus or “Zika fever” are usually very mild and last only for several days to a week. These symptoms include a fever, rash, joint pain, conjunctivitis, muscle pain, headaches, and fatigue. The severity of these symptoms varies from case-to-case, but are rarely considered severe. A rare illness of the nervous system called Guillain-Barré Syndrome has also been strongly associated with Zika. This illness damages the immune system and can cause paralysis. Health organizations are still researching the connection between GBS and Zika.
The reason the Zika virus is considered such a threat is primarily the effect it has on the unborn. Babies infected with the Zika virus in the womb are at a high-risk of developing birth disorders related to Congenital Zika Syndrome, most notably microcephaly. Microcephaly is a defect which hampers the development of a baby’s head and brain relative to its body. When the baby is born, its head will be smaller than expected. This may cause developmental disabilities, seizures, or difficulties hearing, seeing, balancing, or eating.
The risk of these birth defects mean that the Zika virus is particularly dangerous to pregnant women. If you or a member of your family might be pregnant, following these official CDC guidelines carefully to prevent Zika infection. Do not travel to high-risk areas. That said, there is no evidence to suggest previous Zika infection will affect future pregnancies.
The best way to ensure you don’t get infected with the Zika virus is to avoid infested areas. Follow these official guidelines to avoiding mosquito bites:
Bring mosquito spray with you wherever you travel and apply it liberally, especially if you will be outside. Zika virus mosquitoes are active during the day and night, so it’s important you stay protected at all times. Consider sleeping under mosquito nets, especially if you’re visiting or living in high-risk areas. Wear long-sleeve clothing and long pants to minimize mosquito access. Double-check any screens, weather stripping, or nooks and crannies in the place where you’re staying. Keep a close eye out for sources of standing water and clean living quarters frequently. Mosquitoes lay eggs in water.
The other primary way to prevent the Zika virus is to use condoms during sexual contact. This is particularly important if either sexual partner is pregnant or has been living in a high-risk area. Men visiting high-risk areas should wait for at least six months after leaving that area to conceive children. Woman should wait at least 8 weeks from when they return from travelling, or 8 weeks from when Zika symptoms subside, to become pregnant. If you are caring for someone infected with Zika, don't touch any of their bodily fluids. Also, be sure to wash your hands immediately after providing any care and keep their resting area very clean.
There is currently no vaccine for the Zika virus. Most Zika-related symptoms aren't severe, and treatment is relatively basic and symptomatic. Treat symptoms the way you would if you simply had a cold or the flu. Do not take aspirin or another non-steroid anti-inflammatory until after consulting with your doctor, however. Anti-inflammatory medication will worsen bleeding symptoms caused by Dengue, a different virus with early symptoms similar to Zika. Your doctor will be able to tell you whether or not your Zika caused your symptoms from a blood or urine test.
Pregnant people worried that they might have Zika should consult with their doctor frequently and can participate in the US Zika Pregnancy Registry for more information and support.
The Zika virus is not a terrifying mystery. There is a great deal of good information easily accessible online to answer any other questions you have pertaining to Zika. Don't be afraid, instead educate yourself! If bed bugs worry you while you travel, too, check out our blog busting bed bug travel myths. And of course, we’re always available to help you with any pest control needs you may have.