Defining Zika: Who’s at Risk, and What You Need to Know

mosquito on skin

If you’ve been following the Olympics and all of the news that surrounds it, then you may have heard of something a little more serious than the actual competition: Zika. This virus has been wide-spread and is especially prevalent in Brazil, the home of the 2016 Summer Olympics. In fact, dozens of athletes from all over the world have dropped out of the Olympics due to fear of contracting the Zika virus. But what is the Zika virus and why should you be concerned?

What is the Zika virus?

Zika was first discovered in monkeys in 1947 and the first human case was detected a few years later in 1952. The virus is spread through the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito. To date, there have been outbreaks reported in areas of Africa, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and South America.

Who’s at risk?

Zika poses the biggest threat to travelers who are visiting an infected area. Travelers should be alert during the day, particularly in early morning and late afternoon when mosquitoes are most prone to biting.

Keep in mind that even if you aren’t bitten by a mosquito or haven't traveled to an infected area, you could still be at risk of contracting Zika because the virus can be sexually transmitted.

How can I protect myself from the Zika virus?

The safest way to protect yourself from getting Zika is to avoid traveling to infected areas. If you do decide to travel to an infected area, be sure to wear long sleeved shirts and long pants outdoors. Use insect repellents or bug spray with DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of a lemon eucalyptus, or para-menthane-diol. You should also sleep under a mosquito bed net for added protection. Once home, you should continue to use these sprays and repellents for at least 3 weeks as an extra precaution. When indoors, stay in areas with air conditioning and window and door screens to prevent mosquitoes from getting inside.

What are the signs and symptoms?

People who contract Zika may come down with a fever or develop a rash, experience joint pain, and/or have redness in their eyes. Some individuals experience such minor effects of the disease that they never even realize they have it. Although there is no cure or treatment options currently available, these symptoms typically only last for a few days – a week before they go away on their own.

What about pregnant women?

Since Zika can be easily spread from a mother to her unborn child, pregnant women are strongly advised to avoid traveling to Zika affected areas. The effects of the Zika virus on unborn children can be extremely severe including:

  • birth defects such as microcephaly, which can cause a baby to be born with an abnormally small head and/or brain
  • hearing loss
  • vision loss
  • problems with the nervous system
  • other severe brain defects that could potentially even cause death
  • miscarriage or stillbirth

If you are pregnant and must travel to an infected country, be sure to consult your physician first and take extra precautions to avoid getting mosquito bites including using bug sprays and repellents (it is safe for pregnant women to use products with DEET between 20%-30%). You should also be tested for Zika once you arrive home.

If you have been exposed to Zika while pregnant, be sure to get tested for the virus after giving birth as well. If your test results come back either positive or are unclear, your baby should receive a physical where they will be tested for various Zika signs and symptoms. Your baby’s health and growth should also be monitored very closely for the first year.

Women who have been diagnosed with Zika during pregnancy should not donate their umbilical cord blood as it is possible for the Zika virus to spread through cord blood. Although the Zika virus has been detected in breast milk, women will still be able to breastfeed their babies, as there have been no reports of babies getting infected from breast milk.

What should I do if I've been bitten?

If you suspect that you've been bitten by an infected mosquito (or if you have sex with someone who has), the first thing you should do is schedule an appointment with your physician. During your appointment, your physician may order a blood or urine test to screen for infection. If your test comes back positive, don’t fret; the Zika virus can be easily treated with plenty of rest and fluids. Tylenol can also be taken to help reduce a fever. However, you’ll want to avoid taking aspirin until your doctor can be certain that you do not have dengue. Dengue is another illness caused by diseased mosquitoes with symptoms that are often identical to those of the Zika virus.

Individuals who have been bitten or think they may have Zika should be extra cautious not to spread the virus to others. Avoid sexual intercourse and refrain from donating blood for at least 4 weeks to ensure the virus has had enough time to leave the body. Since the Zika Virus is known to live in semen for a much longer period of time (it is unknown how long, but some individuals tested as having it present in their semen for more than 2 months after their symptoms cleared), the World Health Organization (WHO) advises individuals to refrain from unprotected sex for six months.

Even if you’re not planning to travel to an infected area this summer, it is still important to take extra precautions to lower your risk of contracting the Zika virus. While the US has no locally acquired cases reported to date, there has been over 900 travel-associated cases reported and with the Summer Olympics being held in Brazil, this number is only expected to increase. By taking measures to avoid getting bitten and contracting the virus through sexual contact, you can help to avoid spreading it and decrease the overall number of cases both in the US and worldwide.

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