What is the Zika Virus? - dummies

What is the Zika Virus?

By Kacey Kroh, Abshier House, Abshier House

The Zika virus is an infection related to the West Nile virus and yellow fever. The virus was discovered in Uganda in 1947, and is common in African and Asian countries. It only recently was discovered to have spread to Brazil and the Western Hemisphere in mid-2015.

Since reports in Brazil and other South American countries have surfaced, the Zika virus has gained a ton of media coverage. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the virus to be a potential link to an array of birth defects. WHO estimates as many as four million people could be diagnosed as infected by the end of 2016.

What birth defects are caused by Zika?

The main birth defect attributed to the Zika virus is microcephaly, which is the development of an abnormally small head in newborns. All of the defects connected to microcephaly can be traced back to a primary diagnosis of brain damage. The potential birth defects caused by microcephaly are:

  • Developmental delays

  • Intellectual deficits

  • Blindness

  • Hearing loss

Keep in mind that birth defects are not directly caused by Zika virus. Instead, they are caused by a “byproduct” of the infection (microcephaly).

Very few people experience any symptoms or long-term effects from the Zika virus. This makes detecting the infection nearly impossible without a molecular test. Also, because there are typically no symptoms in most people who are infected, including women who are pregnant, the risk for birth defects increases.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) advises women to avoid traveling to infected areas. If exposed to the virus, they should be tested for infection. If infected, the CDC recommends that pregnancy should be avoided for at least two years.

How is the Zika virus transmitted?

The Zika virus is a virus that attacks the blood. Its incubation period is 28 days and it is transmitted one of two ways:

  • Mosquito bite

  • Sexual contact with an infected partner (very rare)

Mosquitos of the Aedes type are the culprits for transmission and typically only live in warm climates. However, these mosquitos sometimes migrate to temperate areas during warm weather. They often bite during the day and can reproduce in as little as a tablespoon of water. The yellow fever mosquito and the Asian tiger mosquito have been linked to spreading the most cases of Zika (both species of the Aedes genus).

Asian tiger mosquito. [Credit: ©iStock.com/altocumulus]
Credit: ©iStock.com/altocumulus
Asian tiger mosquito.

Both of these mosquitos can be found in the United States as far north as Chicago and New York during the summer months. They are also common in Florida, Hawaii, and along the Gulf Coast, year round.

Yellow fever mosquito. [Credit: ©iStock.com/AbelBrata]
Credit: ©iStock.com/AbelBrata
Yellow fever mosquito.

While the vast majority of infection is caused by transmission from a mosquito bite, three reports indicate infection from sexual contact. The most recent case involves a traveler who, after being infected in South America, came back to the United States and infected his partner. In all three cases, the men had reported genital pain.

The CDC suggests all men who have traveled to and from areas of infection provide a blood or tissue sample for testing and avoid sexual activity for the 28-day incubation period.

It is still not clear whether a woman can infect a man through sexual contact because all three cases have involved men passing the infection on to their partners. There is also some question regarding whether or not blood in the semen is a determining factor for the man to be infectious.

If you have traveled to Africa, Asia, or Central and South America and think you may have contracted the virus, have a blood or tissue sample tested right away and refrain from sexual activity.