Zika is usually caused by a virus transmitted by mosquitoes. Although Zika has been documented since 1947, the latest outbreak was reported in Brazil in 2015, with the accompanying news that it causes a serious birth defect called microcephaly. Microcephaly is characterized by a smaller head size than expected, a sign that the baby’s brain has not developed properly.
Since the outbreak was announced, instances of sexual transmission from a man to a woman have been documented, along with one case of woman-to-man transmission in New York City. The virus has been reported in nearly 50 countries, mostly in North and South America and the Pacific Islands. Cape Verde in Africa has also reported the presence of Zika.
Many people with Zika will not have any symptoms. Others may experience fever, rash, joint and muscle pain, conjunctivitis, and headache. The symptoms usually last about a week, which is how long the virus remains in the bloodstream of an infected person.
There are no specific treatments for Zika, and no vaccines are available at this time. If an individual becomes infected, it is important to get plenty of rest and drink fluids to prevent dehydration. Take acetaminophen for the fever, but avoid aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce the risk of bleeding. People taking medication for other medical conditions should talk to their doctors before continuing with the prescribed medications.
Because no vaccine is available to prevent the Zika virus from occurring, the best approach is to avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes. Precautions include using an EPA-registered insect repellant and wearing long sleeves or pants when outdoors. When indoors, close all doors and screens to prevent mosquitoes from entering the house. For people sleeping outdoors, sleep under a mosquito bed net. For people making travel plans, the safest strategy is to avoid countries with numerous documented cases of Zika. Individuals who have traveled to a place with Zika should take steps to avoid mosquito bites for at least 3 weeks after arriving home. That way, if Zika is present in your blood, it will not infect mosquitoes that could then pass it on to other people.
Zika can also spread through male-to-female, male-to-male, and female-to-male sexual contact. Therefore, it is extremely important to practice safe sex strategies if one partner has traveled to a country with documented Zika infections. The best strategy is to use condoms during all sexual encounters. Finally, pregnant women should not travel to countries with Zika. The virus can cause serious birth defects in their unborn babies.