What You Need To Know About The Zika Virus

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Below, Vincent Hsu, MD, infectious disease specialist and hospital epidemiologist with AdventHealth, answers questions you may be pondering.

What is the Zika Virus?
The Zika virus disease is a mosquito-borne illness that is transmitted by the bite of Aedes mosquitoes, originally found in tropical and subtropical zones, but now found on all continents excluding Antarctica.

Where is it found and will it spread?
Zika was first discovered in the Zika forest in Uganda in 1947. Until about three years ago, few had heard of the disease. According to the World Health Organization, only 14 or 15 cases had been documented as of 2007. However, the virus has spread rapidly through Latin America and the Caribbean and was detected last May in Brazil.

The combination of large numbers of the mosquitoes, which carry the virus with a population that lacks natural immunity, is thought to be helping the infection to spread rapidly.

How is it transmitted?
It's similar to how other mosquito-borne illnesses are spread, like dengue virus, yellow fever virus and Chikungunya (pronounced chickengun-ya). The viruses are passed on to humans through the bites of an infected female Aedes mosquito, which mainly acquires the virus while feeding on the blood of an infected person. Though rare, transmission can occur from mother to newborn, as well as through blood or sexual contact.

What are the symptoms?
Similar to those of dengue and chikungunya, the symptoms are generally mild and range from fever, rash, joint pain, headache, and conjunctivitis (red eyes), and last anywhere from a few days to a week. It takes between 2 to 14 days to develop symptoms after mosquito exposure. Most of those who become infected (about 80%) do not develop symptoms.

Why the concern?
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued travel alerts after reports of the virus being linked to more than 3,500 children in Brazil being born with a rare neurological condition called microcephaly and other poor pregnancy outcomes in Brazil. Microcephaly results in babies being born with abnormally small heads, and often serious, and sometimes deadly, developmental delays. Additional studies are underway to learn if the conditions are related to the virus.

Why is there a travel advisory?
The CDC says pregnant women should consider avoiding travel to countries infected by the Zika virus. A full list of countries is available at cdc.gov. Pregnant women who've recently visited one of these countries should contact their physician.

Is the virus in the United States?
The CDC has confirmed about a dozen cases of the Zika virus in the US, including three in Florida. All US cases are related to travel to areas where Zika virus is present, but because the Aedes mosquito is present in Florida, it is possible that local cases could occur in the future.

What can expectant moms do to protect themselves and their unborn babies?
If travel to countries where Zika virus exists is necessary, pregnant women should use added protection against mosquito bites, because there is no vaccine against or medication to treat the virus.

In summary, if you will be traveling in countries where the virus exists, the best way to avoid contracting Zika is to take precautions to avoid being bitten. The CDC advises using insect repellent, staying indoors and wearing long-sleeved clothing to avoid mosquito bites. If you're pregnant, consider avoiding travel to infected areas altogether. If you have fever, joint pain, rash or other symptoms of the Zika virus disease within two weeks of travel to an affected area, seek medical attention and let your provider know where you traveled.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization, AdventHealth

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