by Andrea Doyle | February 04, 2016

With the Zika virus implicated in severe birth defects, stories are everywhere. Here are the facts.


What exactly is Zika? 
It is a virus spread to people through mosquito bites. The most common symptoms of Zika virus disease are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting from several days to a week and the need of hospitalization is uncommon.

Who is at risk?
The biggest threat is to pregnant women. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that pregnant women in any trimester consider postponing travel to the areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing. Zika seems to be linked to microcephaly, a condition where babies are born with shrunken heads and severe disability. "The impact microcephaly will have on that baby and his or her family makes this a huge disease," says Dr. Robert L. Quigley, senior vice president and regional medical director, Americas Region, International SOS, an organization that provides medical, clinical, and security advice and assistance to organizations with international travelers and/or operations. 

Baltimore-based Karen Moul, business development specialist, Catholic Relief Services, notes that the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the microcephaly/GBS clusters, not the Zika virus itself, constitute a public health emergency of international concern. The link to Zika is strongly suspected but not yet proven.

How big is the threat?
Although he doesn't believe Zika will reach epidemic proportions in the United States, Quigley is concerned about the virus. Sexual transmission of Zika virus has happened, he points out so it's not just pregnant women who should be cautious. Someone can contract the virus by having sex with a person who has traveled to an area where the virus is circulating. 

Where is the threat?
The CDC has issued a Level 2-Practice Enhanced Precautions travel alert for people traveling to regions and certain countries where Zika virus transmission is ongoing: Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Though not on any travel alerts, cases have popped up in the United States and most recently in Spain.

Why should we be concerned?
Zika is something that can spread rapidly. Dr. Quigley lays out the following scenario: a traveler can go to Rio for Carnival and get bit by a mosquito with Zika and not realize it. He or she can then come back to the United States, get bit by another mosquito that picks up the virus from that person's blood, and can then infect someone else.

Another factor that concerns Dr. Quigley is it is unknown how long the virus stays in one body. It may or may not stay dormant for a period of time. "This situation is so fluid that I received new information this morning that I didn't have yesterday," says Dr. Quigley.