What is Zika?

Making news over the last year internationally has been the health concern of Zika.   What is Zika, what are the risks of Zika infection in the United States (particularly in Kansas), and what can you do to reduce those risks?

The Zika Virus

The Zika virus was originally discovered 1947 in Uganda, though the first human cases of Zika didn’t surface until the 1950’s.  In the 70’s & 80’s, more cases of Zika began to surface, and began to spread to new territories, though the number of cases weren’t particularly high.  In 2015, Zika appeared in Brazil in a big way –  there’s been nearly 100,000 cases there since it appeared in the South American country.

Zika is most commonly transmitted from person to person via mosquitoes, though it’s possible for it to be transmitted sexually up to 8 weeks after exposure to the virus.  Those who become infected may show symptoms of Zika Fever.  Zika Fever symptoms can include:

  • Fever
  • Rash
  • Muscle Pain
  • Joint Pain
  • Headache
Image courtesy of the Center for Disease Control

Not all of those infected with Zika have the symptoms of Zika Fever, around 1 in 5 people.  There’s also a chance they may not experience strong enough symptoms to visit the hospital – Zika Fever can be fairly mild.  What makes Zika news worthy are two complications that can arise from Zika Virus infections. The first is Guillain-BarrĂ© Syndrome (GBS) is an auto-immune disorder that occurs sometimes after a viral or bacterial infection.   GBS begins with weakness in the legs and / or arms, and can slowly turn into paralysis.  GBS isn’t contagious, is fairly rare in Zika cases, and is rarely fatal.  There is no known cure for GBS.  Therapy during the course of the disease often speeds up the recovery process, which can take anywhere from week to years to fully recover.

Zika infections during pregnancy is potentially the most problematic.  One of the known potential side effects of infection during include microcephaly, where the baby’s head is smaller than normal when born.  Microcephaly often results in vision problems, hearing loss, feeding problems, seizures, developmental delays, and other intellectual disabilities.

Putting the Risk in Perspective

How likely are you to be infected by Zika if you’re not traveling internationally, and how likely is it to have an adverse effect on your health?  Here in Kansas as of June 10th, 2016, you’re more likely to:

The risk level is nearly zero unless you have unprotected sex with someone who has the Zika virus in their system.  Currently, there are only two known cases of travel-related Zika in Kansas, making exposure extremely low.

Avoiding Zika Exposure

The first step to avoiding potential exposure to the Zika virus is pretty simple: don’t travel to areas where there are active Zika infections currently being tracked as locally acquired cases.  In the continental United States, the CDC has no reports of locally acquired cases from mosquitoes.  All reported cases are travel cases, or sexually transmitted cases.  US Territories have had a handful of locally acquired cases.  You can check for up-to-date information on the CDC’s map of Zika infections in US States and Territories.

If you’re a home or property owner, using best practices for mosquito reduction is a good choice, even if there are no locally transmitted cases in your area.  Drain all standing water once or twice a week, including bird baths, trash cans, and other places where mosquitoes can breed.  Additionally, wear mosquito repellant with 20% DEET when outside, avoid wearing dark clothing, avoid unprotected sex  and always cover exposed skin as much as possible

If you’re pregnant, it is recommended not to travel in areas with active local Zika infections.

The Future of Zika

It’s unknown how the Zika virus spread will play out.  Right now, there are no locally transmitted cases in the United States – however, that could change in the future.  Zika’s explosive growth in Brazil is unlikely to happen the same way in the United States.  Dengue, also transmitted through the same mosquitoes that Zika is, affects between 50-100 million people worldwide every year.  The very small number of Dengue cases that appear in the United States are typically those who have traveled to tropical environments, and contracted the disease there.

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Header image of Aedes (Stegomyia) albopictus mosquito courtesy of ConiferConifer, via Flickr.