You might have only heard of Zika in the past month or two, but this mosquito-borne virus has actually been around since 1947. In 2007, an outbreak in the South Pacific allowed the virus to rapidly travel, and as of this writing, at least 1.5 million Brazilians have been affected. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) predicts that the virus will be common in the U.S. by the end of the summer, and there are already a handful of reports of infected Americans.
This might sound frightening, but there's no need to panic just yet. We don't fully understand Zika, but we do know that it's a minor issue for most people.
What is Zika?
Zika is a minor virus that only produces symptoms in 1 in 5 people. Joint pain, rashes, conjunctivitis, and headaches are common. The virus usually clears up on its own. Few people need treatment, and only a fraction of a percent are hospitalized. Almost no one dies from Zika. Despite Brazil's massive outbreak, only three deaths have been reported. That's a death rate lower than the common cold, so don't panic. If you are elderly or immunocompromised, talk to your doctor about what you can do to reduce your exposure to Zika.
Who is at risk for Zika?
As of February 2016, the only known cases of Zika in the U.S. are among people who have traveled to locales where there is an outbreak. As mosquitoes begin to breed and bite people, that will likely change. Southern states tend to have the worst and earliest mosquito problems, and if you live in the southeastern U.S., your risk is highest.
There is some evidence that Zika may be sexually transmitted, so safer sex practices could reduce your exposure to the virus.
Pregnant women and Zika
The primary concern about Zika is that it is associated with a condition called microcephaly. Women infected with the virus may give birth to children with this birth defect, which produces an unusually small head. Symptoms vary, but many children with microcephaly have severe intellectual or developmental delays.
If you are pregnant or plan to become pregnant, you need to know five things:
- The link between Zika and microcephaly is correlative, and not conclusive. Some research suggests a mosquito larvicide may be to blame. Mainstream sources have attempted to debunk this theory by pointing out that the larvicide is EPA-approved, but EPA-approved pesticides have produced birth defects and other health issues before.
- Zika's harmful effects seem to be most severe during the first trimester. Women should be careful about outdoor activities during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
- If you suspect you have been infected with Zika, talk to your doctor immediately. No vaccine is available, but treatment may reduce your child's risk of a birth defect.
- Insect repellents are safe to use during pregnancy. Citronella candles and wristbands may also work, but the risk of Zika is far more severe than any risk you may have heard associated with insect repellents. Avoiding mosquito bites is the single most effective strategy you can adopt for preventing Zika infection.
- Long, loose-fitting, light-colored clothing can keep you cool while helping to protect you from mosquito bites.