The Zika virus is the newest public health threat — especially to pregnant women — that is rapidly spreading through mosquitos. This infection is particularly dangerous for fetuses and can cause irreversible birth defects as well as death.
Currently, more than one million people have been infected in Brazil. While the side effects of this mosquito-transmitted disease are generally flu-like symptoms and a rash, pregnant women run the unique risk of transmitting the condition to their unborn babies. This can lead to microcephaly, a horrific congenital disease characterized by a small head and incomplete brain development.
Not only is the Center For Disease Control and Prevention warning women who are thinking of conceiving or are already pregnant to avoid traveling to South America and the Caribbean, but the World Health Organization has also declared a "public health emergency of international concern." This is only the fourth time the WHO has issued a public health emergency; the previous pandemics were the Ebola outbreak, the resurgence of polio, and the H1N1 swine flu rise.
What You Need to Know About the Zika Virus
How many people have been infected?
According to WHO, the virus is "spreading explosively" with three million to four million infections possible over 12 months. More than 2,100 pregnant Colombian women have been infected with the Zika virus thus far.
Where is the area of concern?
The outbreak has now spread to 25 countries and territories. While no cases of locally transmitted Zika have been reported in the continental United States, the disease has been found in travelers returning from affected countries. Areas of concern include Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico.
What are the symptoms?
The disease does not spread from person to person, but women and babies are at the highest risk of contracting the infection. While most patients don't have any symptoms, some develop a low fever, pink eye, headaches, and a rash. The maximum incubation period is believed to be 12 days, and even if you don't show any symptoms, having the virus in your blood is enough to infect your fetus. The virus is expected to be out of your system within 21 days, and babies conceived after this time are believed to be safe from contracting the virus. The symptoms are generally mild, and an estimated one in five people infected with Zika will get sick.
What is microcephaly?
Babies born with microcephaly have limited life expectancies and poor brain function. There still is no clear link between the virus and birth defects, but microcephaly can cause miscarriages or severe disabilities and can even kill babies.
"In the vast majority of microcephaly cases, the timing of infection seems to mostly point to the first trimester, perhaps early in the second, rather than the third trimester. Unfortunately, it's usually difficult to diagnose microcephaly until late in the second trimester and that's only with good prenatal care and ultrasound being performed," said Scott Weaver, the director of the Institute For Human Infections and Immunity at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, TX.
What can you do to prevent it?
There is no vaccine for the Zika virus. Not only has the CDC warned women of childbearing years from traveling to Latin American and Caribbean countries, but studies also suggest that men who are infected can have a chronic presence of the virus in their semen. This means that the disease can be transmitted to their partner at a later time. Therefore, even if a woman hasn't visited a Zika-infected country, it's still possible for her to become infected. Protection against mosquitos is key in order to avoid the illness.