The Zika virus is gaining an increasing foothold across the Americas and Pacific islands. “Florida will experience a “disaster” with the Zika virus if federal authorities don’t immediately provide money to help battle the virus,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Wednesday. Florida currently has 162 cases of Zika virus, including 38 pregnant women. All of the cases involve residents infected outside the country, but state officials are worried that the onset of hurricane season and wet weather will lead to the virus being transmitted to mosquitoes domestically.
The virus, which is transmitted mainly by mosquitoes, is part of a group of viruses called “flavivirus.” It’s closely related to other mosquito-borne infections, including dengue, West Nile, and yellow fever. They’re geographically in similar areas, and they also have many of the same symptoms. Mosquitoes become infected by drinking the blood of a person infected with Zika, and then spread the disease to other people. A man infected with Zika can transmit the virus through sexual intercourse. Also, people can be infected if they are given a blood transfusion tainted with Zika.
Symptoms of the virus include fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes, although only about 20% of people infected ever show any symptoms at all.
One reason Zika is troubling is because it is a cause of birth defects including microcephaly (a condition where the baby’s head is abnormally small) in babies whose mothers have had Zika. Zika also causes other brain-related birth defects, and can result in miscarriage, according to the CDC. Microcephaly can also cause seizures, developmental delays, intellectual disability, hearing loss, vision problems, feeding issues, and problems with movement and balance. The virus also been linked to a neurological condition called Guillain-Barré Syndrome
Women of child-bearing age who live in an active Zika region should protect themselves from mosquito bites by wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants, using mosquito repellent when outside, and staying indoors as much as possible.
Women should make sure condoms are used or refrain from sex with a male partner if they are living in an active Zika area. They also should follow these precautions for at least 8 weeks if the man has traveled to an active Zika area, or for at least 6 months if the man has been diagnosed with Zika.
There is no cure or vaccine for Zika. Pregnant women infected with Zika will be monitored by doctors, who will closely track fetal development. The CDC has advised pregnant women to avoid traveling to areas where Zika virus is spreading, and to talk to a health care provider to prevent sexual transmission of the virus.