As the number of imported Zika virus cases rises in the United States – and global panic and confusion ensues about the resulting birth defect, microcephaly – here’s what you should know about the epidemic, heading into the warm, muggy summer months when the mosquito population rises.
How do I know if I have Zika?
Zika, a flavivirus that falls under the same category as West Nile, causes only mild symptoms – at worst – in most people. Four out of five people won’t develop symptoms, but those that do will experience fever, rash, joint pain and irritated red eyes for no longer than a week. It’s the birth defects that can occur from Zika, such as microcephaly, which prompted health officials to describe the virus in April as “scarier than we initially thought.” Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare disorder in which the immune system attacks nerves and can paralyze the body, has also been linked to Zika.
Can I get tested?
There is currently no commercial diagnostic Zika test, so generally only pregnant women or travelers with symptoms will be tested. The exception, according to the CDC, is pregnant women who have traveled to one of the 44 countries where Zika is rapidly spreading – all who fall under that category should seek immediate medical testing. Doctors send blood and urine samples to labs that examine antibodies, which can show if someone’s immune system has ever fought Zika. But the test is imperfect and can often mistake Zika for other similar viruses, such as dengue.
Who is most at risk and how does it spread?
Pregnant women who live in (or have traveled to) areas with heavy Zika infestation are at the highest risk.
Like its sister virus West Nile, Zika is transmitted through mosquitos, specifically the Aedes aegypti mosquito. A mosquito bites an individual with an active infection and then spreads the virus to others. Those bitten become carriers.
Zika can also be transmitted through sex. The 472 reported cases in the United States have all been documented as people who had traveled to countries with Zika outbreaks, or were contracted through sex partners.
What is the microcephaly connection?
Unlike other flavaviruses, Zika can be transmitted to fetuses through a pregnant woman’s amniotic fluid. Health officials have officially linked it to microcephaly, a neurological disorder that leads to babies being born with much-smaller-than-normal heads. This can lead to problems with development and in some cases, even death. The number of confirmed and suspected Brazilian cases of microcephaly linked with the Zika virus is 4,759, according to the Health Ministry. And there is currently no vaccine or cure – more on that below.
Why is there no treatment?
For years scientists believed Zika to be benign – and not worth the costs to investigate and research further.
So what’s being done to get one?
Since February, President Obama has been pushing hard for his $1.9 billion emergency funding request to accelerate Zika research, develop a vaccine and provide assistance to U.S. states and territories. Congress has not yet approved it.
In the meantime, the National Institutes of Health are developing and tweaking a vaccine originally meant to treat West Nile that will be launched for a safety trial in September. “The need for a drug is less compelling than the need for a vaccine. Since Zika is an infection that in most people is usually gone within a few days, it may be tough to have a major impact with a drug as opposed to prevention, with a vaccine,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institue of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the NIH, told TIME.
How can I protect myself?
Cover up and bug spray, though obvious, are extremely important. After all, the best way not to get Zika is to avoid mosquito bites. The CDC suggests wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants and taking measures to control mosquitos outside your home. Insect repellent should include either DEET, picaridin, IR3535, lemon eucalyptus oil or para-menthane-diol. There are many EPA-approved sprays deemed safe for pregnant women. For more information on how to stay away from mosquitos, click here.
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Some countries suggest women put off pregnancy (El Salvador suggests waiting two years) but the CDC has not issued an advisory for the United States. “I think everyone would agree that this is a decision for the woman and her partner to make with their doctor and not for government officials,” CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden told TIME.
What do we still not know?
A lot. The exact link between microcephaly and Zika is still unclear – some women with Zika give birth to babies with microcephaly, while others do not. Scientists are also struggling to pinpoint when the risk for infection during pregnancy is greatest.