Doctors have known about the Zika virus for nearly 70 years—so why is it only making headlines now? Zika virus is in the news because it’s on the move, affecting more people, and was recently shown to be linked to serious birth defects in babies whose mothers have been exposed to it.
Zika virus was first identified in Uganda. Over the next 50 years there were occasional documented cases in other countries in Africa and Asia. In recent years, the virus has also appeared in Samoa, Cape Verde, Puerto Rico, and lots of other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Also in the last few years, the virus has been associated with “outbreaks"—meaning many people getting the virus in a short period of time. There have been outbreaks of Zika virus in the Federated States of Micronesia and in Brazil. As many as 1.3 million people may have the virus in Brazil alone. Many other countries in Latin America have ongoing Zika outbreaks, including the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. In June of 2016, the first cases of Zika infection from mosquitoes in the continental United States were identified in Miami, Florida.
What we know about Zika’s effects
The majority of people who get the virus have no symptoms. If symptoms do develop, they typically include a rash, fever, joint pain or red eyes. An infection usually lasts about a week, but the virus may hang out for longer in some people.
For pregnant women, scientists now believe that Zika virus can affect a developing baby. Health care providers in Brazil noticed an increase in the number of babies born with microcephaly—a birth defect where the baby’s brain and head are underdeveloped—and the evidence shows that Zika is the cause. Zika during pregnancy also appears to be linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome—a rare condition in which the body attacks its own nerves.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and many researchers across the world are continuing to study Zika’s effects on pregnancy. There are still lots of questions researchers are trying to answer, like:
How likely it is that a baby whose mother has been exposed to Zika will be born with microcephaly? Do the risks change depending on when in the course of the pregnancy a woman is infected?
How long do you have to wait if you have the virus before you can get pregnant without having to worry about your baby having microcephaly? (The CDC currently recommends that couples wait 2-6 months to try for pregnancy after Zika exposure, with the exact time depending on whether the exposed person was man or a woman and whether he or she experienced symptoms.
If you’re heading to—or living in—a Zika zone
The CDC is recommending that people exercise "an abundance of caution” (which we assume means something like “better safe than sorry”) and take precautions against Zika virus. You can find out which areas the CDC considers risky via their Travel Health Notices page.
Avoid mosquitos. As if you needed more reasons to dread mosquito bites. Many countries and areas with recent cases of Zika also have dengue and chikungunya, other nasty viruses spread by mosquitos, so Zika is just another reason to try really hard not to get bitten. Best ways to do so are to cover up, use an effective mosquito repellent, and sleep behind closed windows or screens.
Always have protected sex. New evidence shows that the Zika virus can also be spread through sex, so if you get busy with someone who’s been to an affected area recently, you’ve got yourself another reason to use condoms. If you’re pregnant and your partner has been to a Zika zone, the CDC recommends that you refrain from boot knocking altogether or use condoms very carefully during your pregnancy. If you don’t want to get pregnant soon or you’re on the fence about it and you or your partner are spending time in an area with Zika, that might be a good reason to wait a while, with the help of your preferred method of birth control.
Maybe reschedule. We hate to say it, but if you’re pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant and you or your partner were planning to go to an area where Zika is active, you may want to come up with a plan b until further notice. If rescheduling isn’t an option, avoid those mosquitos, stock up on condoms, and talk to your health care provider about any other precautions you might be able to take.
Stay safe out there!