10 simple facts about Zika virus

1. Zika is an infectious disease caused by a virus and transmitted by mosquitoes. It is one of four worrisome viral infections that have spread rapidly across the world recently including dengue, chikungunya, and West Nile virus, all of which are transmitted by mosquitoes or ticks. The most dangerous mosquito type is the one that spreads yellow fever (Aedes).

2. Though Zika is mostly spread by mosquito bites, there is emerging evidence that it may be sexually transmitted from men to women (not vice versa) as well as blood transfusions and during labor. The Zika virus can live in urine and saliva but so far there in no evidence that these fluids can spread the infection.

3. Symptoms of Zika are similar to dengue with fever, rash, eye pain, muscle aches, and fatigue. Historically, it is a mild disease, with only sporadic reported cases of extreme illness or death. Often there may be no outward symptoms at all and such people can still spread the disease if a mosquito bites them. Rarely, it can cause a neurological condition called Guillain-Barré syndrome that can be deadly.

4. The biggest danger of Zika is to pregnant women who may give birth to infants with a small head and brain (known as microcephaly) if infected during pregnancy. Pregnant women in Zika virus-affected areas should protect themselves from mosquito bites by using air conditioning, screens, or nets when indoors, wearing long sleeves and pants, using permethrin-treated clothing and gear, and using insect repellents when outdoors.

5. There are no lab tests available for the identification of the Zika virus, and the diagnosis is based on clinical symptoms and signs.

6. Treatment is mostly supportive, and there are no specific medications that can be prescribed for Zika.

7. Vaccines for Zika are neither available nor in the development phase. The best way to prevent Zika is to avoid mosquito bites and practice environmental hygiene.

8. The first case of Zika in the U.S. was diagnosed in Texas. It has spread explosively across Latin America and Southeast United States predominantly due to the presence of the Aedes mosquito.

9. If you are worried about Zika here are a few things you can do to prevent infection: clean your yard, don’t let debris collect, take care of wet areas or areas with still or dirty water, mow the grass and trim the bushes, get rid of old tires that may breed mosquitoes, use window and door screens, have proper air conditioning, wear clothing that covers your arms and legs, and use insect repellants.

10. Zika is an example of how human behavior can flare dormant or slumbering diseases into an epidemic – urban crowding, excessive international traveling, poor sanitation, and carelessness towards the environment that is perhaps causing climate change. Prior to 2007, there were only 14 documented cases of Zika. In the recent epidemic, more than a million people have been infected in Brazil alone.

Tanu S. Pandey is an internal medicine physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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