The Zika virus is the newest public health threat — especially to pregnant women. But as quickly as the disease is spreading across the Caribbean and Latin America, so is incorrect information about this mosquito-borne illness.
From how soon women can get pregnant after contracting the disease to whether there is imminent threat of an outbreak in the United States (and if that means those family trips to Florida should be postponed!), we've cleared up 19 of the biggest misconceptions swirling around about the Zika epidemic.
- This is a new epidemic.
The Zika virus was first isolated in Uganda from a rhesus monkey in 1947. As climates get warmer, the mosquitoes that transmit the disease are able to survive and are spreading north and south of the original territories. "Over the last several years, Zika seems to be spreading in geography. This may be related to increasing the standards of living, so that more people living in the affected areas have started to travel, transferring the mosquitoes to new areas," said Dr. Robert Korn, medical director of Northwell Health GoHealth Urgent Care. "Mosquitoes may also be traveling themselves to areas that were previously too cold for them."
- The World Health Organization declared Zika a public health emergency — so it's as deadly as Ebola.
The Zika virus is officially an epidemic and this is only the fourth time that The World Health Organization has declared a public health emergency but that doesn't mean it is as deadly as other past alerts. WHO is concerned with anything that can quickly cross borders, making it difficult for a single government to deal with the implications. "Anything that can spread to multiple countries and high-risk populations rapidly, that doesn't have a known cure, that requires resources to be thrown at it to find a vaccine, and multiple governments to intervene to try to reduce the impact, becomes a World Health Emergency," Korn said.
- You can only get the Zika virus through mosquito bites.
The Zika virus is a disease that can be transmitted through mosquitoes, blood, pregnancy, and semen. This mosquito-borne flavivirus is not only spread when an infected Aedes aegypti mosquito bites an individual, but it can also be transmitted when a normal Aedes aegypti mosquito bites a sick individual and then nibbles a second person. According to Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the US Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, in a press conference, mosquitoes are by far the main mode of transmission for the Zika virus.
- If you get Zika, you'll experience devastating symptoms.
Four out of five people infected with the virus will experience no symptoms and will have no idea that they are even carrying the disease. The illness is usually mild with symptoms typically lasting two to seven days. It is not often that those with symptoms — which include fever, rash, joint pain, conjunctivitis, muscle pain, and headache — become severe enough to go to the hospital, and very rarely does anyone die from the virus.
- Women and children are at a greater risk for developing Zika.
According to Korn, men, women, and children are all at equal risk of not only becoming infected with the virus but also whether or not they'll experience any symptoms.
- If a pregnant woman gets infected with Zika, she's going to deliver a baby with birth defects.
According to Korn, the general instances of microcephaly is 2 to 10 per 40,000 babies, and research suggests moms getting infected during the first and second trimesters are more at risk than later in their pregnancies. But he emphasizes that there is no known guarantee that a baby will develop microcephaly if his or her mom gets infected with the virus during her pregnancy. There is no known statistical likelihood at this time.
- The Zika virus causes microcephaly.
Although many people believe that the Zika virus in pregnant mothers causes microcephaly, there is no known link. Microcephaly is a disease where a child's brain and the developing skull don't completely form. Korn notes that people with Zika have a higher chance of having babies with microcephaly but also says that it is not confirmed if Zika alone causes the abnormality. "You could look out your window and see that it's snowing and it's nighttime. You could say the snow caused it to be dark out, but that's not true, it just happened at the same time," said Korn. "Zika could be the cause, and it's likely, but it could also be something else. Maybe it's Zika and a medicine people are taking, maybe it's Zika plus another virus, or maybe it's Zika and some underlying genetic predisposition."
- The Zika virus causes Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Currently, there is no confirmed link between the Zika virus and this rare neurological disorder. But as the outbreak intensifies, experts from the CDC are studying whether Zika is causing the increase in Guillain-Barré syndrome. This rare sickness of the nervous system causes a person's immune system to damage the nerve cells and leads to muscle weakness and potential paralysis. The CDC is working with Brazil to see if a specific pathogen "causes" GBS but is clear that no connection has been verified.
- If you're not pregnant or planning on getting pregnant, you don't need to worry about the Zika virus.
Even if you're not planning on having a child, the Zika virus should still be on your radar because, during the last Zika outbreak in 2013, there was a 20-fold increase in Guillain-Barré syndrome.
- A pregnant woman with Zika needs to have symptoms for her fetus to be at risk.
With only one in five people ever experiencing symptoms, it is still not known if a mom needs to feel sick for her unborn baby to be affected by the virus.
- Zika is in your system for a long time.
According to the CDC, the Zika virus usually remains in the blood for about a week.
- Zika can't be transmitted sexually.
Zika has been found present in semen up to two weeks after incubation. In 2013, the Zika virus was found present in a patient's semen after it was out of his blood. "I think as a general rule, you should know a lot about people you have unprotected intercourse with, and that goes not just for Zika, but for HIV and other sexually transmitted disease," Korn said.
- Breastfeeding moms can't use bug spray.
As long as you use EPA-registered insect repellents as directed, they are safe and effective for both pregnant and breastfeeding women. Even if the repellents contain DEET, there is no harm to a breastfeeding mom or children over two months. Children under 3 years old should avoid products with oil of lemon eucalyptus. There are also some natural repellents that are EPA-registered — just make sure that they say they protect against mosquitoes.
- A lot of people are expected to get infected through sexual transmission.
Until the recent case in Dallas, there was only one documented instance of Zika transmitted through sexual contact confirmed. Most experts believe that Zika can only be sexually transmitted while a person is actively sick, but more studies need to be done on semen to confirm this theory. Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, told NBC News, "Everything we know about Zika suggests that the overwhelming majority of cases are spread by mosquitoes."
- People need to be worried about blood transfusions.
Zika, like any virus, can spread through blood, but Frieden explains why people don't need to be overly concerned about loved ones receiving necessary blood transfusions. "The American Association of Blood Banks issued the guidance to defer blood donations for all individuals who had traveled to an area with Zika transmission for 28 days. That was a margin of safety for blood transfusion."
- An outbreak of the Zika virus within the United States is imminent.
Although there is no vaccine or cure for the Zika virus, the CDC does not expect a large amount of local transmissions of the disease. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, believes that it is more than possible for us to see little clusters — very likely in the southeastern part of the country along the gulf coast of Florida — like we saw with other mosquito-borne diseases. But it is widely agreed that the Aedes aegypti mosquito is not common throughout the United States.
If you're not traveling to Latin America or the Caribbean, you're not likely to get bitten by a mosquito carrying the virus. According to Korn, there's no evidence of active Zika carriers by the current mosquito population in the United States. Another advantage that the United States has is our existing mosquito control measures and widespread use of air conditioning.
- If you were going to travel to Florida or Texas . . . don't.
According to Korn, the issue isn't with the states that have had confirmed cases of the Zika virus, it's with if you know who you're having unprotected sex with. "The problem isn't Florida or Texas, that's just where people landed who had been to South America with the Zika Virus," Korn said. "The most important thing is to find out if the person you're having unprotected intercourse with — which you shouldn't be having anyway, unless you're married — find out where that person has been."
- It's safe to get pregnant a few weeks after getting Zika.
While the CDC explains that the virus is only in your blood for days and there is no evidence of risk to children conceived after this time frame, Korn believes that it is still too soon to tell how quickly is safe for a women to get pregnant after being infected. "What if it's not the virus, what if it's some immune response to the virus that's causing this?" Korn asked.
- You should wait a few years to be safe before getting pregnant after a Zika infection.
There is no evidence that the virus will cause birth defects in a baby that is conceived after the virus is cleared from the semen of the father and from the blood of the mother. Schuchat says more testing needs to be done but she does not believe that getting the Zika virus should have any impact on future pregnancies. "We believe this is a time-limited infection in women and men and children — that people have symptoms up to a week, and so we don't think this is one where you have months or years of chronic viral infection that could cause harm to [a future] baby," she said.
Korn also explained that the countries that are recommending for people not to get pregnant for two years are saying that because they don't have the resources to provide ultrasounds or abortions for patients that are identified with microcephaly. "They need several years to fight the mosquitoes and try to knock the transmission down," Korn said. "It's not known what the safe period is after infection to get pregnant."