Zika virus is not new. Outbreaks have occurred in areas of Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. It is new in the Americas, however. Brazil reported the first case in May 2015, and since then, infections have occurred in at least 20 countries in the Americas. Puerto Rico reported the first locally transmitted infection in December 2015, and Zika cases are now being reported in the United States, all from returning travelers, reported CNN earlier last week. Despite these 20 cases, there have been no locally transmitted Zika cases reported in the continental United States. That's good news, for now.
Zika has been called a milder form of dengue fever. The most common symptoms of Zika virus disease are fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis (red eyes). The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting from several days to a week. Severe disease requiring hospitalization is uncommon, says the CDC.
It is spread to people through the bite of infected Aedes mosquitoes. Although it can also be transmitted from a pregnant mother to her baby during pregnancy, it is not otherwise transmitted person to person.
People are contracting Zika in areas where those Aedes mosquitoes are present. This includes South America, Central America, the Caribbean and the U.S. mainland.
With the recent outbreaks, the number of Zika cases among travelers visiting or returning to the United States will likely increase, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The organization adds that these imported cases could result in local spread of the virus in some areas of the United States. If an Aedes mosquito, which is present in the United States, bites an infected person and becomes infected, it can then transmit the disease to others. Still, the CDC says that as of right now, a widespread transmission of Zika in the mainland U.S. is unlikely.
So what should travelers do?
There is no vaccine yet, so the only thing travelers can do is avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes. The CDC suggests:
If you have a baby or child:
After the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) issued an alert regarding the first confirmed Zika virus infection in Brazil, the resulting outbreak there led to reports of Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) and pregnant women giving birth to babies with birth defects, such as microcephaly — a rare congenital condition wherein babies are born with abnormally small heads, and which is, therefore, associated with incomplete brain development.
The CDC is working to determine whether Zika and GBS are related, and urges women who are pregnant to avoid travel to affected areas at all costs.
See your healthcare provider if you develop symptoms. Let your doctor know if you've traveled recently, especially if it was to an affected area. Your healthcare provider will likely order blood tests to look for Zika or other similar viral diseases like dengue or chikungunya.
Remember, there's no vaccine, so if you do have Zika, the CDC recommends:
Do not take aspirin or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. And if you are taking medicine for another condition, talk to your healthcare provider before taking additional medication.
During the first week of infection, Zika virus can be found in the blood and passed from an infected person to another person via an infected mosquito. Since an infected mosquito can spread the virus to other people, it is especially important for an already infected person to avoid additional mosquito bites — particularly during the first week of the illness — to help prevent others from getting sick.