Zika virus is no longer a public health emergency of international concern. That's because it's here to stay.
The World Health Organization recently ended the emergency declaration it made back in February regarding Zika and related microcephaly cases. Efforts to stop the spread of Zika virus are as important as ever. They're just going to be more long-term than expected.
At this point, we know there are Zika cases in every U.S. state. While that doesn't mean there are Zika-carrying mosquitoes in every state, chances are there may be a transmitted infection somewhere close by.
Now is a good time to familiarize yourself with this spreading virus that not even the smartest scientists fully understand. With so many unknowns, it's caused a lot of confusion and unrest. In fact, part of the reason we don't have a vaccine for Zika is because scientists once believed it to be harmless.
The links between Zika and birth defects and neurological disorders are relatively new, according to Time magazine, but they’re now the focus for the Centers for Disease Control. “Our priority is and has been to protect pregnant women and women who are planning to become pregnant,” CDC spokesperson Benjamin Haynes tells LIVESTRONG.COM.
While things are looking grim, there's reason to be optimistic. University of California San Francisco Researchers recently discovered that certain antibiotics, including azithromycin, have the ability to block brain cells from being infected by Zika. In other words, pregnant women might be able to take these antibiotics to prevent their child from developing Zika-related birth defects. The researchers are hoping to launch a clinical trial in Brazil.
Though there’s much to be discovered about the virus, here’s what you should know about Zika and how you can protect yourself from these nasty little insects that are wreaking havoc around the world.
1. What is Zika, and why is everyone afraid of it?
Zika virus is a tropical, mosquito-borne illness that’s new to the Western Hemisphere.
It was first discovered in the Uganda's Zika Forest (hence the name) in 1947. Though scientists believe that it’s common in Africa and Asia, it didn’t spread to the Western Hemisphere until very recently — perhaps 2013 — and was not confirmed until May 2015, according to the New York Times. Western natives haven’t developed immunity to the disease, which is why it’s spread so quickly here.
It’s usually asymptomatic, but it can also cause symptoms that are typically mild and go away after two to seven days. The virus stays in the bloodstream of an infected person for about a week.
Zika has sparked international concern because it can cause microcephaly, a serious birth defect, when transmitted from mother to fetus. It also causes Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare neurological condition that affects the peripheral nerves, or the nerves that control muscle movement and allow you to feel touch, pain and temperature.
Researchers are still studying Zika’s association with additional birth defects and neurological disorders.
Microcephaly causes a baby to be born with a small head or a head that stops growing at birth. Scientists are unsure of the odds that a Zika infection will affect a pregnancy, and they also can’t say for sure that a baby will have birth defects if their mother is infected. Furthermore, there are no specific tests to determine if a fetus will be born with microcephaly, but sometimes ultrasounds in the second or third trimester can identify the condition.
2. What kind of mosquito carries Zika, and why is it spreading?
If you’ve heard of yellow fever and Asian tiger mosquitoes, you’re probably aware of the bad rap these crawlies have when it comes to spreading disease. Zika is a first-class passenger aboard Aedes species mosquitoes, which inhabit tropical, subtropical and temperate climates.
According to the CDC, these bad girls are also responsible for spreading dengue, chikungunya, West Nile virus and yellow fever. You read that right: Only female mosquitoes feed on blood, while the males only drink plant nectar, according to the New York Times. Unlike vampires, these mosquitoes feel their most potent thirst during the daytime, but can also bite at night.
Although areas that previously experienced outbreaks of dengue and chikungunya, like Hawaii, Florida and Texas, are considered to be at a higher risk for Zika, these mosquitoes have broad horizons. Here’s a map of places where these types of mosquitoes live in the U.S.
Zika spreads mainly via mosquito bites. It can also be spread through sex without a barrier and blood transfusions.
3. How can I protect myself from Zika?
The best way to prevent Zika is to protect yourself from mosquito bites. The CDC recommends using Environmental Protection Agency-registered insect repellents. You can find a list of active ingredients to look for on this CDC webpage.
Don’t spray on skin that’ll be protected by clothing, and if you’re planning to use sunscreen, apply that first. You can also wear permethrin-treated clothing. Permethrin is an insecticide that can withstand at least 25 washes.
Here’s how to protect your baby. Hint: Imagine a neater version of the living room blanket fortress. You can also take steps to protect your home from mosquitoes, including fixing holes in your screens, getting rid of standing water (goodbye, kiddie pool), running the air-conditioning and using insect spray.
Lastly, protect yourself during sex to avoid sexual transmission of the disease, or abstain from sex with a partner who has traveled to an area with active Zika transmission.
4. How do I know if I’m infected?
Four out of every five Zika victims experience no symptoms, Haynes says. When they do appear, symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain, conjunctivitis, muscle pain and headache (commonly mistaken for the flu). Usually, people don’t get sick enough to go to the hospital, and people very rarely die because of Zika alone, according to the CDC.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of Zika and have recently traveled to an affected area, see your doctor or health care provider and be sure to tell them about your travels. This is especially important if you’re pregnant.
5. How is Zika treated?
For now, however, there's no specific medicine or vaccine for Zika, so if you’ve been diagnosed, treat the symptoms. The CDC recommends getting plenty of rest, staying hydrated and taking fever- and pain-relief medicine. And remember, the virus only stays in your system for two to seven days.
Do not take any anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin, and consult your doctor if you’re taking any other medicine. If you’re pregnant and have contracted Zika, you should get more frequent ultrasounds, as this is the only reliable method for detecting microcephaly.
6. What areas of the world should I avoid?
Every state in the U.S. has seen cases of travel-related Zika infection (yikes). Check out the CDC’s map of cases by state to learn more about Zika in your backyard.
Due to a recent outbreak, Florida is the only state that’s had locally acquired cases, which are when people get Zika while in the U.S. The good news is that the CDC says it’s unlikely that Zika will become an epidemic here.
A total of 59 countries and territories are experiencing active Zika virus transmission. These are places where people are contracting Zika locally and, in most cases, there are infected mosquitoes. But this doesn’t mean that these are the only areas that have seen any infections.
Cases have recently cropped up in Northern Ireland and the Netherlands. However, travelers should mainly be concerned about areas that are currently experiencing outbreaks. You can find a list of the CDC’s travel notices on their website.
Within the U.S., the CDC advises everyone to avoid the two areas in Florida that are currently experiencing Zika outbreaks (again, especially if you’ve got a bun in the oven). These are the Wynwood neighborhood in northern Miami and the town of Miami Beach.
7. What should I do if I've recently been or am going to an area with Zika transmission?
During any time spent in these locations, follow the steps listed under question 5 to protect yourself from Zika. If you’re returning to the U.S., follow those precautions for at least three weeks to avoid infecting others and local mosquitoes.
8. How do I protect myself if I'm pregnant or trying to conceive?
Pregnant women or women contemplating pregnancy should be especially cautious when it comes to traveling. The CDC recommends that they avoid all areas where there’s active Zika virus transmission. You can check the online list of countries and territories with active Zika virus transmission for specific sites.
The CDC advises pregnant women returning from areas with active transmission or who live in these areas to have their blood or urine tested for Zika virus at least twice during their pregnancy.
Women who have visited countries with active Zika transmission in the past and who want to become pregnant now shouldn't worry about previous exposure to the virus. This is because scientists believe that once someone has recovered from the virus, they have a long-lasting (potentially lifelong) immunity to it, according to the New York Times.
To be safe, it’s recommended that they wait at least eight weeks before conceiving a baby.
The CDC provides a few checklists for women who are making family planning and travel decisions.
9. What are we doing to stop Zika?
Scientists at the National Institutes of Health are currently developing a vaccine for the Zika virus. Retroactive medicine would be relatively ineffective for a virus that usually goes away after a few days: “The biggest thing right now is working on a vaccine. That’s the one thing that can really prevent Zika,” Haynes says.
Researchers are tweaking a vaccine that was originally aimed at preventing West Nile virus and expect to begin safety trials in October.
States are each responding differently to the situation. The two areas in Florida that have been affected by the Zika outbreak are being sprayed with insecticide. New York City committed $21 million over the next three years in response to the situation, according to Time magazine. North Carolina, on the other hand, recently eliminated its mosquito-control programs and will have to start fundraising from scratch.
In September, during meetings about the impending government shutdown, President Barack Obama discussed ways to allocate more federal funding to the Zika situation with Congressional leaders. The funding would support developing better Zika tests, monitoring people for the virus and studying the effects it can have on babies.
According to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, it is likely that Zika financing will be included in a continuing resolution. Such a resolution would provide funding for the additional three months of the year once the government budget runs out at the end of this month. If a government shutdown occurs, however, those programs would be at risk.