Q: Dear Healthier Talk,
Every time I turn on the news or go online I see another story about the Zika virus. Everything I see or hear about it is scary, but I have to admit I’m a bit confused.
I’m hoping you can clear something up for me.
I’m not pregnant and I’m past my child-bearing years. But I do live in an area with lots of mosquitoes.
Do I need to worry about getting the Zika virus if I’m not pregnant?
Child Free, Florida City, Florida
Dear Child Free,
Great question! The answer is yes and no.
Yes, you can get the Zika virus even if you’re not pregnant. But no, you generally don’t need to worry too much about getting it at the moment if you aren’t in your child-bearing years and don’t plan on getting pregnant.
There is no vaccine so as the warm weather arrives we will very likely see more cases of the virus here in the United States, but the chances remain low that you would become infected.
More on that in a moment, but first let’s take a quick look at what Zika is, and how it’s spread.
Although Zika was first isolated in the Zika Forest in Uganda in 1947 it was rare to see a case. So for the next 66 years few folks had ever heard of it before.
In 2013 an outbreak in French Polynesia put it on some expert’s radars, but most folks still didn’t hear about the virus until last year when an outbreak hit Brazil with more than a million people catching the virus.
How the Zika virus is spread
Zika is what is known as a flavivirus and it’s related to some other diseases you may have heard of before such as West Nile, Dengue, Yellow Fever and Chikungunya.
The Zika virus, as you know, is spread through mosquito bites. Which means when a person who is infected with Zika is bitten by a mosquito when that mosquito bites a second person it can transmit the virus.
The Aedes aegypti is the specific type of mosquito responsible for the spread of the virus. Although the Aedes aegypti isn’t a native to the United States it’s now found in the southern states from coast to coast.
The following map, courtesy of the CDC, highlights the potential range of the Aedes aegypti here in the United States.
According to the CDC there have been no confirmed locally acquired cases of Zika yet in the U.S. States and a total of 832 locally acquired cases in the U.S. Territories so far. But that number is expected to increase as we move into the warm weather months.
There is also evidence that, although likely rare, the virus can be spread through sexual contact. Several cases of man-to-woman transmission have been reported, including one in 2011 when a man who had been traveling in Africa apparently transmitted the disease to his wife in the U.S. when he returned home.
If you have a sexual partner that has travelled to Central or South America or any areas where there has been active Zika transmission if you have unprotected sex your chances of contracting the virus may be higher.
So far there is no evidence that the virus can be transmitted through any other body fluids. But it has been detected in breast milk, saliva and urine so that could change as we learn more.
And, of course, we now believe that Zika can be spread from a mother to her unborn child, which is what has caused so much alarm and made Zika a household name. More on that in a moment.
Common Zika virus symptoms
Generally, most folks who contract Zika only ever experience mild flu-like symptoms at most. In fact, according to experts it’s believed that as many as four out of five folks who get the disease never even know they had it.
Symptoms can include…
- Joint pain
- Conjunctivitis (inflammation of the eyes)
If you do have symptoms you can expect them to hang around for two to seven days.
So what are all those scary headlines about?
Well there are two cases when the Zika virus can morph from a mild annoyance into a potential disaster.
The Zika connection to birth defects
The first is that mother to child transmission we mentioned earlier. There’s a growing stack of evidence that pregnant women infected with this typically benign virus can transfer it to their babies with devastating consequences.
Traces of Zika were detected in amniotic fluid samples from two pregnant women in Brazil whose babies were diagnosed with microcephaly—a condition that causes a child to be born with an underdeveloped brain and an abnormally small head. Another baby born with microcephaly who died soon after birth tested positive for the virus as well.
Even more troubling, in the five year period between 2010 and 2014 there were a total of 156 cases of microcephaly per year in Brazil. But in the four months between October 2015 and January 2016 over 4,000 cases of the birth defect were reported in the country. That’s a shocking 2464 percent increase.
If a child with this birth defect survives, the lifelong complications include…
- Intellectual disability
- Developmental disorders
Scientists don’t yet know how Zika causes birth defects—or even how much risk is involved—but the CDC is now officially warning pregnant women, and women who may become pregnant to avoid South American and the Caribbean.
Earlier this month the CDC reported that there were 157 pregnant women living in the United States with laboratory evidence of a Zika infection, and another 122 women in the U.S. territories.
Neurological complications from Zika
The second case in which Zika can be far more serious than the common flu is when it’s connected to neurological symptoms.
Earlier we said you generally don’t need to worry about the Zika virus if you aren’t pregnant. That’s true, however there have been some troubling cases of the virus being connected to Guillain-Barre syndrome a neurological condition in which your body’s immune system begins to attack your own nerves.
- Tingling in your extremities
- Extreme muscle weakness
- Temporary paralysis
While the majority of people recover from Guillain-Barre, the paralysis caused by the syndrome can lead to breathing difficulties and in rare cases it can result in death.
During the 2013 Zika outbreak in French Polynesia there was a 20-fold increase in cases of Guillain-Barre. A study in Brazil after the outbreak there has confirmed a higher number of cases of the syndrome in people in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s who were otherwise healthy.
Here in the U.S. the CDC is reporting one confirmed case of Zika related Guillain-Barre in the States and 5 in the U.S. Territories. But as the virus begins to spread here we may begin to see that number rise.
The best way to avoid the Zika virus
Your chances of contracting Zika here in the United States are low and if you’re not pregnant you shouldn’t be too worried. But some common-sense precautions to protect yourself against mosquito bites in areas with Zika are still a good idea.
The CDC suggests wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants and staying in places with air conditioning and window and door screens to keep mosquitoes outside. If you’re overseas or outside and unable to protect yourself from bites they suggest sleeping under a mosquito bed net.
And they encourage you to use EPA-registered insect repellents with one of the following active ingredients:
- DEET (click here to read about some potential concerns with DEET),
- oil of lemon eucalyptus (or para-menthane-diol / PMD).
If you’re using a sunscreen be sure to apply it before you apply insect repellent.
Still have questions? Don’t wait another second to protect your family. Download our Free Zika Virus Survival Guide today.