The Zika virus is gaining attention worldwide with reports of an "explosive" spread of the illness.
Zika, an illness transmitted to people through mosquito bites, has recently been linked to a congenital condition that causes newborns to have unusually small heads. Microcephaly, the name of the defect, causes smaller than normal cerebrums in babies and improperly developed brains.
Symptoms of the virus include fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes.
What's known about Zika right now
Advisories initially aimed at pregnant women have now been expanded as more cases of the virus have been reported in the United States. The World Health Organization predicted that 3 million to 4 million people could be infected with Zika in the Americas this year, many of whom won't display symptoms.
So far, the virus has been discovered in more than 20 countries in South America. No cases of Zika virus have been reported as locally transmitted in the continental U.S., but cases have been reported in returning travelers and the virus has been reported as having been locally transmitted in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.
Scientists first started exploring the connection between Zika virus and birth defects when a significant uptick in mosquito-borne illness and microcephaly was discovered in Brazil. According to the Hawaii State Department of Health, the Zika virus has been linked to one American case of the birth defect.
Even still, the CDC acknowledges that "additional studies are needed to further characterize this relationship." Now, the organization is advising travelers to "consider postponing travel to the areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing." All vacationers to countries where evidence of the virus has been found should take precautions to avoid mosquito bites such as wearing long sleeves and using bug repellent and mosquito nets.
There is no specific treatment or vaccine for Zika, which is related to dengue fever. Despite the concern shown at WHO, a leading U.S. health official said Thursday that he doubts the United States is vulnerable to a widespread outbreak of the Zika virus.
How to prevent the virus from spreading
The Pan American Health Organization, which serves as WHO's regional office for the Americas, released the following recommendations for preventing the spread of Zika virus:
- Mosquito populations should be reduced and controlled by eliminating breeding sites. Containers that can hold even small amounts of water where mosquitoes can breed, such as buckets, flower pots or tires, should be emptied, cleaned or covered to prevent mosquitoes from breeding in them. This will also help to control dengue and chikungunya, which are also transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes. Other measures include using larvicide to treat standing waters.
- All people living in or visiting areas with Aedes mosquitoes should protect themselves from mosquito bites by using insect repellent; wearing clothes (preferably light-colored) that cover as much of the body as possible; using physical barriers such as screens, closed doors and windows; and sleeping under mosquito nets, especially during the day, when Aedes mosquitoes are most active.
- Pregnant women should be especially careful to avoid mosquito bites. Women planning to travel to areas where Zika is circulating should consult a health care provider before traveling and upon their return. Women who believe that they have been exposed to Zika virus should consult with a health care provider for close monitoring of their pregnancies.
- Use air conditioning, window screens and door screens to keep mosquitoes outside. If there's a likelihood that mosquitoes can gain entry into a habitation, sleep under a mosquito bed net.
Further, the CDC advises travelers, especially women who are pregnant in any trimester, women who are trying to become pregnant or women who are thinking about becoming pregnant, to avoid the following countries until further notice:
- Burkina Faso
- Cape Verde
- Central African Republic
- Cote d’Ivoire
- Sierra Leone
- El Salvador
- French Guiana
- Puerto Rico
- Cook Islands
- Easter Island
- Federated States of Micronesia
- French Polynesia
- New Caledonia
- Solomon Islands