Concerns mount about the Zika virus and its connection to devastating birth defects and nervous system disorders, but you can take steps to reduce your risk of transmission.
Zika virus is most commonly spread through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito (Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus). These are the same mosquitoes that can transmit dengue fever, chikungunya and yellow fever.
Aedes mosquitoes, which are recognized by their white markings on their thorax and legs, bite both during the day and night, but they are most active during late morning and early evening hours.
- Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which feed on people and are the most likely to spread Zika fever, live in tropical, subtropical and some temperate climates.
- These mosquitoes also live in tropical, subtropical and temperate climates, but they can thrive in cooler temperatures than the Aedes aegypti. These mosquitoes feed on animals as well as people, so they are somewhat less likely to carry the Zika virus.
For most people, Zika fever is a mild condition that comes and goes without causing permanent damage.
For others, the virus is reason for legitimate concern.
The most well-publicized of these Zika concerns is the brain and nerve damage it can cause in developing fetuses. A pregnant woman who is infected with the virus can give birth to a child with microcephaly or other severe brain defects.
Microcephaly is a condition that occurs when the baby’s brain has not developed properly during pregnancy or stops growing after birth. This results in a smaller brain and head size. It can be an isolated condition, which means it occurs with no other major birth defects, or it can occur in combination with other birth defects.
And as scientists continue their research, connections between the Zika virus and other worrisome conditions, like Guillain Barre Syndrome, continue to emerge.
There are things you can do to minimize your chances of contracting the Zika virus.
But first, let’s talk about what the Zika virus is and how to know if you should be tested for it.
What Are Some of the Zika Virus Symptoms?
Zika virus symptoms are usually mild and last less than a week when they do occur. The most common symptoms are:
- Joint pain
- Red eyes
Some people exhibit less common Zika symptoms, such as:
- Loss of appetite
- Muscle pain
Since only 1 out of 5 people who are infected with the Zika virus show any symptoms, it is possible to have contracted the virus and not know it.
What are the Zika Virus Treatment Options?
There is currently no recommended Zika virus treatment.
This is largely because scientists long believed the virus was so benign that treatment was not worth exploring. Since discovering the connection between Zika and microcephaly, however, scientists have been working toward developing a vaccine.
If you display symptoms and have recently traveled to an area where Zika is spread, you should contact your health care provider—especially if you are pregnant.
He or she may do a blood test to check for Zika virus or other mosquito-borne illnesses, such as dengue fever.
How to Minimize Discomfort Caused by Zika Symptoms
Like the flu virus, Zika has to run its course. But there are steps you can take to minimize discomfort caused by Zika symptoms:
- Get plenty of rest
- Stay hydrated
- Take acetaminophen (Tylenol) to relieve pain and fever
This is particularly important to note:
- Do NOT take aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen or any other NSAIDs until your doctor confirms you do not have dengue fever. These medicines can cause bleeding in people infected with dengue.
A bit of good news:
Scientists believe that people who have had Zika fever will be immune to future infections, and that it does not pose an increased risk of birth defects in future pregnancies.
How Can Zika Fever Be Prevented?
A Zika fever vaccine is likely still years away, so the focus is currently on prevention.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that anyone in areas where Zika fever has been spread take steps to protect themselves from mosquito bites.
To prevent mosquito bites:
- When outdoors, wear long sleeves, long pants, socks and a hat
- Use insect repellent with natural essential oils, DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus or para-menthane-diol
- If sleeping outside, sleep under a mosquito net
Pregnant women are advised to avoid traveling to areas where Zika is present whenever possible.
If you live in an area where Zika has been spread, in addition to the above instructions, you should:
- Remove any items from outdoor areas that might hold standing water (e.g., birdbaths, potted plants) or empty them daily
- Talk to your neighbors and offer to assist them with these items
- Remove or replace landscape plants that retain water (e.g. Bromeliads)
- Treat all bushes, shrubs, groundcover and landscape area on a regular basis with a proven repellent.
What is the Zika Guillain Barre Connection?
Current research suggests a strong connection between Zika and Guillain Barre Syndrome, a rare sickness of the nervous system.
Guillain-Barre Syndrome causes a person’s immune system to damage the body’s nerve cells, which results in muscle weakness and temporary but severe paralysis.
In some cases, patients have been but on ventilators to help them breathe until they have recovered.
In rare cases, Guillain Barre can be fatal.
The CDC continues to investigate the link between Zika and Guillain Barre Syndrome, but several countries that have experienced Zika virus outbreaks have also reported increases in people with Guillain Barre.
Where and When Did the Zika Virus Outbreak Start?
The origins of the Zika virus outbreak date back to 1947, when the virus was first identified in monkeys in the Zika forest in Uganda. Five years later, Zika was identified in humans in Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania.
Zika virus outbreaks have been recorded in Africa, North, Central and South America, Asia and the Pacific islands. The first large outbreak was reported from the Island of Yap in the Federated States of Micronesia in 2007.
The association between Zika and Gullain Barre syndrome were reported in July of 2015, and between Zika and microcephaly in October 2015.