What is the Zika virus?

The Zika virus is a virus that can be spread by a certain breed of mosquitoes, called Aedes aegypti, found throughout North, Central, and South America. When a pregnant woman becomes infected with the virus, it can lead to the development of microcephaly in the unborn child. Microcephaly is the medical term for a small head and underdeveloped brain, which causes significant problems for the child, potentially including death.

The increase in Zika virus cases

Since 2015, the rise of the Zika virus has been staggering, with more than 4,000 new microcephaly cases that were suspected to be caused by the Zika virus. This is more than 20 times greater than the numbers in prior years.

With this significant increase, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention have enacted a recent travel advisory alerting pregnant women to delay travel to areas where the Zika virus is active. The travel advisory list continues to grow and currently includes 30 countries or territories, most of them in the Americas.

Important facts you need to know about the Zika virus   

  • The Zika virus is carried by mosquitos and people, but is usually spread by a mosquito bite.
  • Symptoms of the Zika virus are generally mild and include: fever, rash, joint pain, muscle pain, headache, and red eyes (conjunctivitis). These symptoms typically last several days to a week.
  • Unborn babies have the highest risk of Zika virus complications. Pregnant women who are infected with the virus can increase their child’s chances of developing microcephaly, which can cause significant mental retardation as well as delays in speech, motor function, and development.
  • There’s no vaccine to protect people from the Zika virus. A great deal of research and funding needs to occur before a vaccine can be available.
  • United States travelers can bring the Zika virus back with them. These imported cases occur when a person is infected elsewhere and then visits or returns to the United States.

Lowering your risk for the Zika virus

Given the possible link to birth defects, preventing the spread of the Zika virus is critical, especially for women in their childbearing years. With no vaccine or cure currently available, one of the best ways you can protect yourself from the Zika virus is to avoid traveling to areas with an active infestation. If you have to travel to a country where the Zika virus is present, use an EPA-approved repellent, wear long pants and long-sleeve shirts made from thick materials to block potential mosquito bites, and sleep in an air-conditioned, screened room. In addition, avoid going outside at dusk and dawn, when mosquitos are more active.

If you are concerned that you may have contracted the Zika virus, consult your physician and get tested as soon as possible. For more information, go to cdc.gov/zika.