Chances are if you’ve booked a trip to the southern coast of the United States or the countries below it, you’ve received a warning about the Zika virus that’s currently circulating these areas. There has been an official public health advisory warning from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) stating that the Zika virus is unusually prevalent in these areas and those looking to travel should be aware of the virus and what it does.
Zika Virus Overview
Zika has been around for more than 70 years, but until now, it was relegated to parts of Africa and South America. Because it had never traveled so closely to our borders in the past, American researchers had expended very little effort to understanding its symptoms and effects on the body. Now that it’s knocking on our front door, medical researchers everywhere are seeking to learn more about the illness. Here’s what we know now:
- It’s a flu-like illness with symptoms including headache, fever, achy joints, rash, and conjunctivitis (red eyes).
- The symptoms last between several days and two weeks, and the virus will be gone from a person’s system two weeks after contraction.
- Some people do not display symptoms of Zika virus, even though it is in their system.
- People usually don’t get sick enough to go to the hospital and very rarely die.
- Once the Zika virus runs its course, the host becomes immune and cannot be infected again.
- It’s transmitted primarily through an infected mosquitos. There have been rare cases that suggest the virus can be transmitted through sexual intercourse, blood transfusion, or from pregnant mother to child when they’re born.
Primary Health Concern of Zika Virus
The Zika symptoms themselves aren’t frightening; it’s the possible health effects for pregnant women and their unborn children that give health agencies pause. There have been studies linking Zika virus to serious birth defects, particularly microcephaly, which is characterized by a baby being born with an unusually small head and brain. For that reason, women who are pregnant or who may become so are warned to take special precautions or cancel their vacations altogether if the Zika virus is prevalent there.
In the past, there have only been a few documented cases that showed microcephaly as a result of the virus, but recent studies have strengthened the hypothesis. The latest research shows that the virus can selectively infect the cells of the baby’s brain cortex, damaging the cell production and division. It doesn’t prove that the virus is the direct cause of microcephaly, but it does give probable cause. In the meantime, researchers are working diligently to find conclusive answers to these concerns.
Travel Advisories in Effect
In the past, the Zika Virus advisory was only in effect for parts of Mexico and the majority of South America. Now, officials are warning anyone who travels to those countries, Africa, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa to take extra precautions or reconsider their plans.
Currently, there haven’t been any local mosquito-borne Zika virus cases in the United States. There have been several isolated incidents in the U.S. from those who have traveled to one of these areas and brought the virus back with them. The cases have been contained, but if a mosquito bites a person contaminated with the virus, there’s the possibility of it spreading all over the United States.
Unfortunately, there’s no vaccine developed for the Zika virus as of now, but it’s only a matter of time. Right now, the only way to protect yourself from the virus is to take extra precautions to avoid being bitten by a mosquito. Here are some of the CDC’s recommendations:
- Most of the mosquitos infected with the virus travel during the daytime. Take extra precautions during the hours of daylight to avoid being bitten.
- Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants.
- Use EPA-registered mosquito repellant, mosquito nets, and door and window screens to keep mosquitoes away from you.
- Avoid areas where mosquitos are prevalent, including rain forests and areas with standing water.
If you’ve been infected, it’s recommended that you take special precautions to prevent spreading the disease to others. Here are the suggestions:
- Avoid being bitten by a mosquito while the virus is in your system. You risk the mosquito becoming infected and spreading it to others.
- Use a condom while having sex or don’t have sex for at least two weeks after contraction.
The risks of Zika virus are high for some, and low for others. Travel agencies and health organizations alike urge that you take caution when traveling until researchers are able to get the virus under control.