There’s a lot of noise out there about the Zika virus. But how do you separate fact from the rumors?
Here’s what you need to know, especially regarding how to take steps to protect yourself.
What is the Zika virus?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the Zika virus is a disease caused by mosquito bites, specifically from Aedes mosquitos. While there is no cure available, the symptoms of the virus are relatively mild and usually clear up in a couple days. Symptoms include fever, rash, reddening of the eyes, muscle and joint pain, and headache.
Where is it currently circulating?
The biggest outbreak right now is in South America and the Caribbean and it’s significant enough that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a travel alert for certain people (pregnant women, women of childbearing age, women trying to get pregnant) to avoid visiting the countries currently being affected by the virus. With the upcoming warmer months, experts expect the virus to land stateside and have expressed concern about preparing for it properly. WHO has predicted three to four million people could be infected with Zika in the Americas in just this year alone.
Why all the concern around the Zika virus?
The Zika virus was first discovered in 1947 in Uganda and up until recently, most researchers thought the virus was harmless. For most healthy people, the virus is indeed mild - however, now they have found the virus may have a significant link to microcephaly, a rare congenital condition where a baby is born with an abnormally small head. This is why pregnant women or women trying to get pregnant should be aware of all the preventive measures they can take to avoid this virus. Microcephaly not only affects the physical appearance of the child but also affects brain development. Many children with the condition have development challenges as they grow.
It’s also important for all people to know that the Zika virus may have a connection with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare neurological syndrome that can cause paralysis.
All of these connections need more research to be held as absolute facts. Even though in Latin American countries, there have been recommendations on avoiding pregnancy, nothing can be said definitively until more evidence is found.
How the world is responding
WHO has announced the organizaton will be having an emergency meeting to stop the progression of the virus. U.S. officials are also now requiring all states to report any new Zika cases. According to a report from the Washington Post, some public health experts are critical of the response speed of global health officials, while the White House is focused on education and vaccination development efforts, with the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest stating, "At this point, here in the United States, the risk of disease spread by mosquitos are quite low, the temperatures in North America right now are inhospitable to the mosquito population. Eventually that will change and we have to be mindful of any possible risk here in the United States.”
The best way to prevent Zika virus transmission is to avoid mosquito bites. You can do this by using insect repellant and wearing light colored clothing that cover the body well, if you plan on traveling to any of the countries affected by the virus.
If you suspect you might have Zika virus and if you’re pregnant, talk to your doctor immediately about monitoring the fetus closely. Also, let them know about any areas you might’ve visited where you could have transmitted the virus.
If you are not pregnant, but still suspect you might have the virus, talk to your doctor to properly treat the disease. For a full Q&A of the Zika virus with John E. Swartzberg, MD, an infectious disease specialist at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, click the button below:
Yumhee Park is a former content producer for HealthCentral.com.