What is the Zika Virus and Should You Be Concerned?

Zika virus map
Center for Disease Control

If you've been following the news recently, you've no doubt seen more than a few references to the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne disease that has seemingly exploded into the public consciousness over the past few weeks. In reality, the illness has been around for a number of years, but it now seems to be spreading further abroad, and its horrible side effects are growing in potency. 

The Zika virus has been around since at least the 1950's, but it has usually remained confined to a narrow band that circles the Earth near the equator. It had been most prominently found in Africa and Asia, although now it has spread to Latin America as well, with cases being reported in places ranging from Brazil to Mexico. The illness has even been found in the Caribbean, with places like the U.S. Virgin Islands, Barbados, Saint Martin, and Puerto Rico reporting cases. 

For most people, the general symptoms of Zika resemble those of a cold. The CDC says that about 1 in 5 people who contract the virus actually become ill. Those that do often exhibit a fever, joint and muscle pain, conjunctivitis, headaches, and a rash. Those symptoms are generally mild, and last for just a few days or a week. Currently, there is no vaccination, and the standard treatment is to get as much rest as possible, stay hydrated, and take basic medicines to relieve fever and pain. 

If those were the only symptoms, and recovery was so straight forward, there would be little cause for concern. But unfortunately Zika has some incredibly bad side effects for one segment of the population – women who are currently pregnant or are trying to become pregnant. It is now believed that the virus is the cause of birth defect called microcephaly. This condition results in a baby being born with an abnormally small head and severe brain damage. 

​In Brazil, where the Zika virus is now known to be somewhat common, the number of cases of microcephaly grew substantially last year. In the past, the country saw about 200 cases of the birth defect in any given year, but in 2015 that number skyrocketed to over 3000. Worse yet, there have been more than 3500 cases reported between October of 2015 and January of 2016. An alarmingly large increase to say the least. 

​Clearly the threat to pregnant women is substantial. So much so that a number of countries are warning female travelers to avoid any country where Zika is known to be active. And in the case of El Salvador, the country has advised its citizens to avoid becoming pregnant until after 2018. The thought of a country not having any new children being born for two years seems unbelievable. 

So far, for male travelers, there doesn't seem to be any cause for concern, as there hasn't been a link to the disease causing birth defects after the father was infected. But this is a major concern for any women who might be traveling to the effected areas in the near future, especially if they are already pregnant or trying to become so. If that isn't the case however, there doesn't seem to be any long term effects from the virus entering the system. 

One of the more troubling aspects of the Zika virus is just how rapidly it appears to be spreading. Most experts feel that it is only a matter of time before it reaches the U.S., where it could impact a large portion of the population. But more than that, this could become a worldwide epidemic if the strain of the virus that is found in Latin America makes its way to other parts of the globe. And since someone who is carrying the disease can pass it to other mosquitos through the insect's bite, the chance of that happening seems high as well. 

Pregnant women who have plans to travel in areas where the virus is already active probably should consider cancelling those plans. In fact, a number of airlines in South America are allowing female passengers to cancel their flights and receive a refund, as are United and American. Others are sure to follow. 

At the moment, when it comes to dealing with Zika, discretion seems to be the better part of valor. 

Update: When this article was first written, there hadn't been any indication that Zika could be transmitted through sexual intercourse. But now, it has been shown that the disease can indeed by passed from an infected man to a woman through sex. While so far, this method of transmission has only been recorded twice, it does provide cause for concern. Be sure to take proper precautions when visiting areas where Zika is now known to be spreading. 

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