Editor's note: The following article was originally posted on Jan. 29 and has been updated with additional information. Unedited video of Dr. David Priest speaking to this topic is available for media. Download 720p version here. Download the SD version here.
A mosquito-borne virus is raising concern and many questions in the United States and worldwide. The illness known as Zika virus has been spreading through Central America and South America and there have been reports of serious birth defects in infants born to women infected with Zika virus in Brazil.
Here’s what you need to know about the disease.
What is Zika virus?
Zika virus was first described in Africa in 1947. It is transmitted by infected mosquitoes, specifically through a bite from two types of Aedes mosquitoes. These are the same types of mosquitoes that can carry dengue and chikungunya virus.
In addition to mosquito-borne spread, Zika virus can be transmitted from a mother to her unborn child during pregnancy. It is also possible that the virus can be spread through infected blood and sexual contact.
Zika has now been found in the semen of infected men and it is unclear at this time how long it can remain in the reproductive system or over what period of time it can be transmitted through sex. In general, a person infected with Zika only has the virus in their blood stream for 5-10 days but there is growing concern that, in men, the virus can remain in the reproductive system for much longer.
To date, there are no reports of infants getting Zika virus through breastfeeding.
The current outbreak began in Brazil last year. Since then the virus has spread to other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. There have been reports of people infected with the Zika virus in the United States, though to date these infections were acquired by people traveling abroad. The Aedes mosquitoes that can carry Zika virus can be found in the United States. This type of mosquito thrives in tropical and sib-tropical climates and has been in the United States for centuries. This raises the prospect that Zika virus could be spread in the United States.
What are the symptoms of Zika?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stated that 1 in 5 people who contract the Zika virus will be sickened by the disease. The most common symptoms are fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis. Other symptoms might include muscle pain and headache. Symptoms are usually mild and last a few days to a week.
In rare cases, people may require hospitalization.
There is no vaccine to prevent Zika and no drugs exist to specifically treat the illness. However, experts recommend treating the symptoms by:
- Getting plenty of rest.
- Staying hydrated.
- Taking acetaminophen to treat fever and pain.
- Avoiding aspirin or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as Advil, Aleve and Motrin.
If symptoms do not improve, patients should see their primary care provider. Patients with symptoms who have traveled to areas with a Zika virus outbreak should inform their provider.
What do we know about a possible link to birth defects?
Zika is receiving worldwide attention due to an alarming connection between the virus and infants born with abnormally small heads, a condition known as microcephaly. Health officials in Brazil are reporting an increase in the number of babies with microcephaly born to women infected with Zika.
The CDC has issued guidance for physicians on evaluating pregnant women for Zika during an outbreak. It recommends that pregnant women who are considering travel to a Zika-infected region delay their visit. Pregnant women who have traveled to an area with documented Zika virus should consult with their obstetrician.
Does Zika virus cause Guillain-Barre syndrome?
The Brazilian Ministry of Health is reporting an increase in cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome since the current outbreak of Zika began. Guillain-Barre syndrome is a rare autoimmune disorder that can lead to paralysis. While some people can recover from the syndrome, it can sometimes lead to permanent nerve damage and death.
The CDC will conduct a study in Brazil focusing on the possible connection between Zika and the syndrome.
Where is the Zika virus now?
The Zika virus is currently being transmitted by mosquitoes in Latin America and the Caribbean. Infections of Zika in the United States were acquired by travelers who returned with the virus. The CDC and state health officials continue to monitor the United States for local Zika virus, but at this time do not expect widespread transmission of the disease.
How do you protect yourself?
The best way to prevent Zika infection is to protect yourself from mosquito bites. Use insect repellents that contain DEET, picaridin, IR3535, and some oil of lemon eucalyptus and para-menthane-diol products. These repellents provide long-lasting protection and are safe and effective for pregnant and nursing women.
Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants to reduce skin exposure to mosquitoes. In warm weather, use air conditioning or screened windows to cool a room and keep mosquitoes out of your home. Remove standing water from containers around your home that are a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
In addition, the CDC recommends that if you have Zika, it’s important that you protect others from getting sick. During the first week of infection, Zika virus can be found in an infected person’s blood stream and the virus can be transmitted from person to person through a mosquito bite. The agency said to help prevent transmission of the disease, people with the infection need to avoid mosquitoes.
Finally, women who are pregnant should avoid travel to areas of the world with Zika virus. In addition, both men and women who wish to become pregnant should avoid these areas.