What started out as a small incidence of a flu-like disease in remote areas of the South America is now turning into an international outbreak. The Zika virus has the horrifying effect on foetuses that we’ve all seen covered in the media, and can even become dangerous to the health of adults as well (there have already been a few fatalities). In this detailed overview of Zika, we will report the facts that you need to know about how the virus is transmitted, how it affects people and what can be done for protection against it, in case you’re traveling to an infested area. The measures of protection you can take against the Zika virus are welcome even if you’re not traveling, considering that the number of cases in areas outside South America is rapidly growing.
1. How Is the Zika Virus Transmitted?
Perhaps the detail which is the scariest about Zika is that the flu-like symptoms of a Zika infection are so mild that in many cases they may not even be visible at all. In fact, the virus has been around for a longer while than we think; we may have heard about it more in the media due to the recent outbreak, but it has been recorded since the 1950. Usually, only a few cases per year are diagnosed, and only in a narrow equatorial belt in areas of Africa and Asia. What is different about this time is the fact that there have been multiple confirmed cases in various parts of the world, Europe included. On the 2nd of February, the first Zika virus case in the U.S has been confirmed (by the Dallas County Health and Human Services). We need all the precautions we can take.
Zika is transmitted via mosquito bites, as the news hubs have already warned you of. But the incidence of this virus being transmitted through mosquito bites isn’t actually all-encompassing, as you may have been led to believe. If you get bit by a mosquito carrying the disease, it doesn’t automatically mean you will contract it too. This doesn’t mean the virus isn’t that dangerous or that travelling to an infested area isn’t that risky; while we don’t mean to downplay the danger of this virus, the facts should be presented straight. Here is the data* about how Zika is actually transmitted:
- Once you get bit by a mosquito, you will may get the Zika infection in your system.
- If you have the virus in your system (via a mosquito bite), you have a 1 out of 5 chance of developing the virus. This means that only about 20% of the people infected with the virus actually develop the disease as well (become ill).
- If you are among the 1 out 5 infected people who have also developed the Zika disease, you have a 50% chance of the symptoms being so mild that you almost don’t notice them (more on the symptoms below).
- Usually, people don’t feel sick enough to warrant a hospital visit, even when they are infected with the Zika disease. They very rarely die from this disease (and only when they body and lungs were greatly weakened by other health complications, or when their age made them vulnerable, etc.)
- After developing the disease, Zika remains in the affected person’s bloodstream for about a week, but in some cases it was found for even longer. This means that the formerly sick person can still pass Zika on through unsterile needles and so on (blood contact). It still isn’t clear whether the virus can also be transmitted through sexual contact, but the latest data indicates a strong possibility for this.
2. What Are the Zika Virus Effects (Symptoms)?
As mentioned above, the Zika disease (which a person develops after the virus in their blood actually triggers the illness, which doesn’t happen every time) is pretty mild in its symptoms. Most of all, to Westerners unaccustomed to exotic diseases, it resembles the flu or the common cold. TO native people around the Ecuadoran line, who have more experience with similar ailments, this illness is highly similar in symptoms with the dengue and chikungunya diseases. Here are the most common symptoms of the Zika disease:
- Joint pain
- Conjunctivitis (red eyes)
- Muscle pain
These symptoms will generally last from a couple of days to a week, then the person experiencing them will start feeling better even with no treatment applied. Just like the common flu, the Zika disease can become more dangerous to a person’s health, but only when they have underlying health complications, or they immune system is weak on account of being very young or very old. In such cases, the virus can lead to more serious complications (and even death), but this doesn’t happen very often.
So, as you can see, this virus doesn’t have devastating effects on adults. Still, the reasons for the international concern surrounding this outbreak aren’t related to the effects the virus has on adults. As you may have seen in the news and special coverage stories, the Zika virus can cause dramatic harm to fetuses still residing in their mother’s womb (microcephaly). Even though a direct causal link hasn’t yet been scientifically proven (mainly because experimenting would be highly unethical), these is a strong correlation between microcephaly in fetuses and the virus in the mother’s body.
3. How Can You Protect Yourself from the Zika Virus?
Even though countries located in the main transmission zone for the Zika virus are trying to control the outbreak with questionable advice (for example, by suggesting complete abstinence in areas where contraception and abortion are both against the law), there are reasonable ways of protection from the Zika disease.
First of all, if you know that you plan to travel to a country or area at risk for transmitting the virus, you can contact the CDC and inform them of your visit, so you can find out more about the free virus protection you can receive. The measures taken will include CDC travel vaccines (for your entire group), as well as info on avoiding the disease (more on that below) and free testing for the virus when you return to the U.S.
If you’re travelling to a foreign area but you’re unsure of whether it is a Zika-infested area or not, you can check the Zika travel updates from the CDC here:
Also, besides getting vaccinated and tested for the virus, make sure you also respect the following guidelines:
- Use mosquito repellant products (sprays and lotions), and wear full-coverage clothing if possible, in order to minimize the risk of getting bitten.
- Don’t engage in any potentially dangerous activity with people you meet while travelling (exchange of bodily fluids, dangerous sports which may lead to involuntary exchange of fluids and so on);
- Use contraception while traveling and when you return from the trip as well. If you or your partner already carries a pregnancy, use protection nonetheless, at least until you are cleared by the CDC as non-infected with the virus.
Note: All numeric data (like statistics) presented in the above article have been obtained by courtesy of the CDC: http://www.cdc.gov/zika/symptoms/
Infographic: Original MHIT content