While the Zika virus has been around since 1947, it has not been recognized as a legitimate threat to the United States until quite recently. Zika is a potent virus that is carried by mosquitoes. Until 2007, the virus was limited only to Africa. Since then, it has spread to the South Pacific and into other tropical regions, such as the Caribbean. Zika is particularly concerning for pregnant women who may suffer birth anomalies, such as microcephaly, to their unborn children. However, it can also cause fevers, rashes, headaches and joint pain in anyone affected by it for up to one week.
Zika is transmitted by the bite of a mosquito. However, it can also be transferred between sexual partners. The species of mosquitoes that carry the virus include Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus. Currently, only A. aegypti has been spreading Zika in the United States; this species is mostly present in warmer states with more tropical climates. However, it can come as far north as Ohio in the Midwest and Connecticut along the Eastern seaboard. While A. albopictus can carry Zika, it has not been known to do so as of yet in the U.S.
The most recent information shows that the majority of Zika cases in the US are travel-related, meaning that they are due to a person having been bitten by an affected mosquito while traveling out of the country. The only place in the US that has been affected by locally-infected mosquitoes is a small area of Miami just north of the downtown district. Florida, Texas, California, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York have all reported more than 200 cases each with well over 600 reported in Florida. States reporting between 50 to 100 cases include Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, Illinois and Michigan.
Being Proactive about Zika
Because Zika is spread by mosquitoes, it is vital that you learn how to prevent mosquito bites no matter where you live and particularly if you travel out of the US. You should be aware that virus-laden mosquitoes bite during both the day and the night. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend using insect repellents with high levels of EPA-registered active ingredients, such as DEET, Picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus, para-menthane-diol or IR3535. Some brand name examples of approved repellents include Off!, Cutter Advanced, Repel, and SkinSmart. These repellents are safe even for pregnant women to use as well as for all children over the age of two months. In addition, you will be best protected if you wear long sleeve shirts, long pants and repellent-treated shoes and socks when outdoors. In addition, cover baby carriers with netting to protect very young infants from being bitten.
The only other way that you could get Zika other than from a mosquito bite is from sexual contact with a person having the virus. To protect this type of transmission, always use a male or female condom during sexual intercourse. Condoms should be used during vaginal, anal and oral sex to prevent transmission from semen or vaginal fluids. Beware that a person may transmit the virus before any symptoms begin and even after symptoms end.
This is Only the Beginning of Zika
The United States government is maintaining a close monitoring system of Zika cases throughout the US as well as in Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and American Samoa. The local government of Miami has taken steps to contain and prevent future outbreaks by using aerial spraying in some neighborhoods. In addition, President Obama has asked Congress to approve emergency funding for vaccine development, virus testing and state and local financial aid.
The government does not believe that the mosquitoes carrying Zika will travel much farther north than they already are, which is in Florida and Texas. However, travel-related cases could expand if people do not take proper precautions when traveling. Locally-acquired cases are most likely in Texas and Florida although the mosquitoes that can carry Zika can go as far north as Iowa and New Hampshire and as far west as California.
If you develop symptoms that are consistent with Zika or have traveled to a different country affected by the virus, you should be tested. In addition, if you had unprotected sex with a person who has or had Zika, your doctor may recommend testing. This is particularly important for pregnant women. Testing can be done using blood or urine samples. A test known as real-time reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction testing, or rRT-PCR, can be done within two weeks following the start of symptoms. It can also be performed on pregnant women who currently have no symptoms but who traveled to an affected country.
While this new information about Zika should not be cause for panic, you should work consistently to prevent transmission of the virus by preventing mosquito bites and by practicing protected sex using condoms.