Zika virus is all over the media, here’s what you need to know

Zika virus has recently blown up all over the media. I wrote a post about it a few weeks ago and since then it’s been all over the news. There’s been a lot of information coming from many different angles so I’m going to break it down a bit for you.

What is Zika virus?

Zika virus is a mosquito transmitted virus, like dengue or chikungunya, that causes symptoms such as fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes. The illness is generally mild and rarely causes hospitalizations. Only about 1 in 5 people infected with Zika virus show symptoms, meaning that most people who get the virus and are asymptomatic. There is no treatment for Zika virus and prevention is just the usual recommendations for how to avoid mosquito bites.

Where did Zika virus come from?

Zika virus was first characterized in 1947 from a monkey in Uganda that got sick and they were able to isolate a novel virus from the monkey. Shortly thereafter they found the virus in a mosquito, demonstrating the mode of transmission. Zika virus is pretty much endemic throughout Africa and Asia but has begun spreading outside of it’s normal areas, into Oceania and the Americas. Some researchers think that the spread of Zika virus to novel populations, populations with no previous immunity, is contributing to the fast spread of the virus.

Why do we care so much about Zika virus all of a sudden?

Zika virus has been around for awhile, but only recently did we start hearing a lot about it in the media. Most of the recent media coverage stems from reports of Zika virus being associated with an increase in the number of cases of microcephaly (babies born with small heads and brains) in Brazil. Researchers haven’t proven that Zika virus is the cause of the increase in cases of microcephaly found in Brazil, especially since Zika virus has not been known to cause microcephaly in populations outside Brazil. But doctors and scientists have found that Zika virus can cross the placenta in pregnant women, and the virus has been found in babies with microcephaly. Microcephaly has no treatment and so little is known about how Zika virus is related to the microcephaly that it is a very scary time for pregnant women in areas with Zika virus transmission. Furthermore, in an effort to not repeat the disaster that was the Ebola response, the WHO recently declared the Zika virus outbreak an “International Public Health Emergency“. This designation can prompt action by governments and nonprofits to control the spread of Zika virus, gives WHO decisions the force of international law and could help standardize surveillance activities so the world can get a true handle on how big the Zika virus outbreak really is.

Do I need to be worried?

This is a tricky question and the answer is based on the following things:

1. Zika virus is transmitted by the Aedes species of mosquitos, so you may not live in an area that has those species of mosquitoes. I, for one, live in Montana right now and it looks like I’m not in danger of being exposed to Zika virus via infected mosquitoes (although I am going to Brazil for the Olympics……..).

Distribution of Aedes species mosquitoes in the US, courtesy of CDC.

World map showing countries and territories with reported active transmission of Zika virus (as of February 1, 2016). Countries are listed in the table below.

World map showing countries and territories with reported active transmission of Zika virus (as of February 1, 2016).

2. If you have the reproductive parts to get pregnant you may want to avoid doing so if you live in or are going to travel to any of the Zika virus transmission areas. Or just avoid going to those areas if you can’t guarantee you already aren’t, or won’t become, pregnant during your time there. Since no one knows exactly what it is about Zika virus that may be contributing to the irreversible microcephaly, it would probably be better not to chance something really bad happening to your future child. This is one of those instances where it really is better to be safe than sorry, at least until we have more information.

3. Zika virus has been shown to be an STI. Crazy, right? Back in 2011 a virologist named Brian Foy went to Senegal to study malaria, got Zika virus and sexually transmitted it to his wife when he got back to the US. This was the first known case of a mosquito borne virus being sexually transmitted. Sexual transmission of Zika virus was also reported in 2013 during an outbreak in French Polynesia. And most recently it was reported to be sexually transmitted in Texas in early 2016. One thing to keep in mind is that the virus doesn’t live in the body of most people for more than a week. But if you are one of the many people with Zika virus who are asymptomatic, you wouldn’t even know you could spread Zika virus to your sexual partner. So if you live in or are traveling to a Zika virus transmission area, maybe err on the side of caution and practice safe sex, just in case.

Zika virus is the topic du jour, just like Ebola was a couple years ago. That’s not to say there isn’t currently an outbreak happening or that it isn’t an important virus that could be related to serious complications in newborns. The media has a tendency to sensationalize news stories to sell “papers” so it’s up to you to do your due diligence in understanding the true risk to yourself from Zika virus.

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