A to Zika: What You Need to Know

By: Michelle Place, CRNP-P
Until recently, the Zika virus has been like soccer, of mild interest here in the United States but a huge deal in Brazil. As the virus continues to spread the CDC is starting to pay more attention. Here are the answers to some basic questions about the Zika virus.
Where did it come from?
The virus was first identified in a feverish monkey in the Zika forest of Uganda in 1947. For many years there were only scattered cases identified along the equator throughout Africa and Asia. About a decade ago, cases started appearing throughout the Pacific Islands and the first case in the Americas was reported in Brazil in May, 2015. Since then Zika has spread to 22 other countries and regions in the Americas.
How is it spread?
Zika virus is primarily spread through the bite of an infected mosquito in the same way that dengue, yellow fever and west nile virus are spread. The mosquitos breed in water-filled containers and ponds, and are particularly active during dawn and dusk. The insects become infected when they bite an infected person, taking in blood that includes the virus, and then pass the virus on when they bite another person. Spread of the virus through blood transfusion and sexual contact has been reported. It is also possible that Zika can be spread from mothers to infants during pregnancy and delivery. There are no documented cases of Zika virus being spread during breastfeeding.
What does it look like?
Most people who become infected with Zika virus show no symptoms at all. In fact, only about 1 in 5 people who contract Zika show signs of infection. People who do become ill have nonspecific symptoms that are similar to a number of viral illnesses, including fever, rash, joint and muscle pains, and conjunctivitis (pink eye). The length of time between exposure and illness is unknown but we suspect that it can range from a few days to a few weeks, symptoms last for about 2-7 days.
So, what’s the big deal?
The virus has two uncommon but severe complications that have prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare Zika virus a global emergency like they did with Ebola. One is an autoimmune disease, usually triggered by infections, called Guillain Barre Syndrome which can result in widespread weakness and paralysis. The other condition is called microcephaly, a birth defect in which a developing baby’s brain fails to grow to its usual size. Although Zika virus infections in pregnant women have not been scientifically linked to birth defects in infants, the rate of microcephaly in Brazil has increased 20 fold since Zika virus was first discovered there in May 2015.
What can we do about it?
There is no medicine that can treat Zika virus and no vaccine so the best strategy is prevention through elimination of standing water, use of DEET containing insect repellents, wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants and use of mosquito nets.
What should I do if I am pregnant and planning to travel?
Please visit the CDC website and to view a map that is tracking Zika outbreaks.