With summer comes more time outdoors. With time outdoors—especially by lakes or in wooded areas—comes the potential for exposure to mosquitoes. And with mosquitoes, as we’ve learned in the news over the last many months, comes the risk of the Zika virus.
The virus has been linked to birth defects that affect unborn children if the mother is infected during pregnancy.
So how concerned do you actually need to be? There is a lot of media hype and much conflicting information on the outbreak, made worse by fear mongering and bordering-on-hysterical advisories for everything from sexual activity to global travel.
While there are no guarantees either way of the consequences of exposure at any stage of life, being armed with information and a plan to protect yourself is a good place to start. To take the panic down a notch, we’ve compiled the down and dirty on Zika so you can effectively protect yourself without losing your mind. The more you know, right?
Zika is not new
Zika was first discovered in 1947 in a rhesus monkey in Uganda. For decades, it was documented most prominently in West and Southern Africa and Southeast Asia. The extent of its reach was not known until an outbreak in Polynesia in 2007. Worldwide attention to this virus has been increasing as numbers and frequency of cases rise.
The outbreak in Brazil has been linked to the strain of Zika native to the South Pacific. In all cases, Zika is transmitted by one of three species of mosquito or sexually, human-to-human.
Zika can affect pregnant women and their unborn babies
The virus can be transmitted by an infected mosquito or by an infected sexual partner. The virus can then be transmitted to an unborn baby during pregnancy or at delivery.
Being exposed to the virus doesn’t necessarily doesn’t necessarily mean contraction of the virus. We don’t know how likely a pregnant woman is to fully contract the virus if she is exposed. How likely it is that the baby will be infected—or have a birth defect associated with the virus—is also unknown. This means there is a chance that exposure could have no health consequences for mom or baby.
Infection not likely affect future pregnancies
According to the CDC, a Zika infection in a pregnant or non-pregnant woman is not likely to cause problems in future pregnancies. And from what is known of similar viruses, once a person has been infected, it is likely they develop a natural immunity to future exposure.
Zika may be linked to microcephaly…
… but it might not be with the same certainty the media makes it out to be. Microcephaly—which means, literally, “a small head”—is a condition often comprising other cognitive development factors. It occurs in around 25,000 births in the U.S. every year, mainly in cases where Zika is not a factor. Of Brazil’s 4,200 reported cases of microcephaly, only six are certainly linked to the virus. Microcephaly may also be caused by genetics or the mother’s exposure to toxins or infection during pregnancy.
While the virus may cause birth defects, these same defects may occur without the presence of the virus.
You are at a higher risk for contracting Zika from a mosquito in certain parts of the world
Zika has been transmitted from mosquitoes in West and Southern Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, including Papua New Guinea, Fiji and American Samoa. The U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and all of Central and South America are also effected.
Pregnant women are advised to avoid traveling to these areas for the time being. Women and their partners who are planning to become pregnant who have traveled to these places should abstain from sex or use trustworthy protection for at least six weeks after traveling. Pregnant women whose partners have traveled to these areas should abstain for the duration of the pregnancy, especially if the partner is symptomatic.
You are not at a heightened risk of contracting Zika from a mosquito in North America
Of the 1,306 cases of Zika reported in 46 of the 50 U.S. states, none has been mosquito borne, which means you probably don’t need to worry so intensely about the critters flying around at dusk. However, as international travel is so commonplace, it’s not impossible to contract the virus from someone who has traveled and who may not know they have it.
Symptoms range from none to severe
In the most severe cases, the consequences of a Zika infection are the birth defects mentioned above and a neurological condition called Guillain-Barre Syndrome. However, as there are often no symptoms, it’s possible to have the virus and not know it. In a minority of cases, symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain, red eyes, headache and muscle pain lasting up to a week. To date, no deaths from Zika have been reported.