How to Prevent Zika Virus

With the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro just having ended, it’s easy to forget about the deeply troubling health issue that overshadowed most of this year’s lead up to the Games. Zika virus started getting attention last year, with the peak in January 2016 when travel advisories were issued by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for areas that were being heavily affected by the virus. This includes many countries in South America, Central America, and Oceania.

While it’s tempting to worry about Zika virus making its way to the United States, it’s important to realize that there have been relatively few cases in the continental USA, and of that small number, an even fewer number have resulted in any significant symptoms. If you’re worried about contracting the Zika virus, read on to see how to best protect yourself.

What is the Zika virus?

Zika virus was discovered in 1947. It is spread two different ways — the most common way is from certain types of mosquitos to humans through their bite. Only the Aedes family of mosquitos carry the virus, so cases of Zika are highest in areas where these mosquitos breed and grow. The other way that is is spread is through penetrative sex — a person infected with the virus will spread it to their partner through either semen or vaginal fluid.

Tacio Philip Sansonovski / Shutterstock.com
Tacio Philip Sansonovski / Shutterstock.com

What are the symptoms?

A healthy adult who is infected with Zika virus may not experience any major symptoms at all — in fact, most people who get Zika virus simply feel like they’ve come down with a minor fever, and may have a rash.

A small portion of people infected develop Guillain–Barré Syndrome (GBS), which causes temporary muscle weakness. Patients diagnosed with GBS frequently need to be ventilated to assist with their breathing, as the sudden muscle weakness that affects their body can cause their breathing muscles to collapse. Although GBS is fatal in 7.5% of patients, the group most at risk when infected with Zika virus are pregnant women.

dimid_86 / Shutterstock.com
dimid_86 / Shutterstock.com

If the symptoms are so mild, why are so many people worried about Zika virus?

Even though 80% of people don’t even develop symptoms if infected with Zika virus, a pregnant woman can easily pass the virus on to her fetus, and in unborn babies it can cause major birth defects like microcephaly, resulting in a baby born with an improperly developed brain.

Researchers still aren’t sure why only some babies develop birth defects after being infected with Zika virus, and why others are spared.

EmiliaUngur / Shutterstock.com
EmiliaUngur / Shutterstock.com

Who is most at risk?

Pregnant women are the most at risk for Zika virus, as their infection can be passed to their unborn child, resulting in terrible, life-altering birth defects. Even if the baby isn’t born with microcephaly, new research is suggesting that the baby may still be born with birth defects that present later in life, like impaired growth, and vision and hearing problems.

Phil Jones / Shutterstock.com
Phil Jones / Shutterstock.com

What areas should I avoid if I don’t want to be infected?

The CDC has issued travel advisories to many different countries that have ongoing Zika virus outbreaks. Primarily, these countries are located in South and Central America, and in Oceania.

Any country where the Aedes family of mosquitos live and breed is at risk for eventually being exposed to Zika virus, although it is helpful to know that primarily these mosquitos stick to the damper lowland areas. Even if you’re going to a country that has active mosquito-borne Zika transmission, if you stick to areas of higher altitude where mosquitos can’t live, you’ll be safe.

Jung_Rattanasiri / Shutterstock.com
Jung_Rattanasiri / Shutterstock.com

Are there any areas within the continental United States that are being watched for cases of Zika virus?

Right now, there is a small area of Miami called Wynwood where the CDC is investigating active Zika virus transmission through mosquitos. If you live or intend to travel to that area, keep an eye on the CDC website for any updates.

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Fotoluminate LLC / Shutterstock.com

How can I prevent Zika virus?

The easiest way to prevent Zika virus is to avoid areas where the Aedes mosquito thrive. These areas are different in every different country where they’re known to dwell, but generally the lowland areas that are damp harbor more mosquitos than mountainous areas.

Even if you are going into one of these areas, it is possible to take precautions to avoid getting bitten. Wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants will help, as will sleeping under a mosquito net. It is also important to avoid unprotected sex with people who are currently living or have recently traveled to areas with active Zika virus.

Maridav / Shutterstock.com
Maridav / Shutterstock.com

What can I do if I suspect that I’ve been infected?  

If you’re a healthy adult, and you have recently traveled to an area with active Zika transmission, it is important to consult a doctor immediately if you feel feverish, have a rash, joint pain, or ongoing headaches. The doctor will analyze your symptoms and recent travel history, and will order a blood or urine test to confirm the diagnosis.

Until you’ve seen a doctor, the best thing you can do is rest, drink plenty of water, and take acetaminophen to reduce your fever.

wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock.com
wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock.com

How can I protect others if I suspect I’ve been infected?

Even if you already know that you have the Zika virus, it is important to take steps to prevent yourself from being bitten by mosquitos again — if they suck infected blood from your body and bite someone else, they will infect them as well. It is also important to refrain from unprotected sex for at least six months (for a man) or eight weeks (for a woman) after being diagnosed.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock.com
Image Point Fr / Shutterstock.com

What is being done to combat the spread of Zika virus?

The World Health Organization recently declared a state of emergency because of the lack of information surrounding Zika virus. Currently, there are advisories issued for 45 different countries, warning primarily pregnant women not to travel to those areas.

Although there is currently no vaccine or treatment available to stop the spread of Zika virus, the World Health Organization is doing the best they can to spread awareness of the disease and its symptoms so people know when to seek treatment.

Martin Good / Shutterstock.com
Martin Good / Shutterstock.com

What will the next steps be for the virus?

The World Health Organization believes that Zika virus will reach the continental United States from northern Argentina in larger number by the end of the year. Currently, there is only one area of active transmission, in Wynwood, Florida, where there have been four cases of locally transmitted Zika virus identified since the end of July.

The US territory of Puerto Rico is under a much greater strain — currently there are thousands of cases of Zika virus on the small island, hundreds of which are pregnant women.

angellodeco / Shutterstock.com
angellodeco / Shutterstock.com

Has this affected the US Olympic team at all?

The US Olympic team has volunteered to serve as test subjects for a long-term National Institute of Health (NIH) study on Zika virus. They will partner with Dr. Carrie L. Byington, who helped prepare them for travel to Brazil. All of the athletes, coaches, support staff, and spouses who traveled to Rio are eligible to participate in the study, and help the NIH with their ongoing Zika virus research.

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A.RICARDO / Shutterstock.com