Unsure what the Zika virus is and whether you’re at risk? We’ve answered your questions on the latest global health scare…
What is it?
The Zika virus has been linked to thousands of birth defects. It was first detected in 1947, in monkeys in Africa, and linked only to small outbreaks on the continent until late 2015, when it spread to the Americas and Asia.
Pregnant women infected with the virus have given birth to babies with
underdeveloped brains and abnormally small heads (microcephaly), which can result in death, intellectual disability and developmental delays.
The long term effects of the Zika virus on non-pregnant women and men are still unknown.
How is it spread?
The virus is carried by the Aedus mosquito, but there have also been reports of it spreading via blood transfusion and sexual intercourse.
Where is the outbreak?
Since late 2015, the Zika virus has been “spreading explosively” across the Caribbean and North and South America.
The outbreak could spell trouble for the upcoming Olympics in Rio this
summer, with over 1 million cases reported in Brazil alone. Guinea-Bissau, Indonesia and the Philippines are now considered ‘moderate risk’ travel areas whilst South and Central America remain ‘high risk’.
The first European case was confirmed in Spain in February (to date, there have now been 190 known cases in the country), whilst pregnant women were advised to postpone non-essential travel to Florida last week, following confirmation of four Zika cases in the area. 53 cases have been confirmed in the UK since 2015.
What are the symptoms?
Only 1 in 5 people infected will experience symptoms. Where they do occur, they include mild fever, conjunctivitis, headache, joint pain, rashes and itching. A rare nervous system disorder, Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can cause temporary paralysis has also been linked to the infection. If you suspect you may have been infected, seek medical attention – the Zika virus can be detected via blood tests.
How is it treated?
There is currently no vaccine or drug treatment available, although trials are expected to begin in September. Patients are advised to rest and drink plenty of fluids. The virus usually clears by itself.
What are the long-term effects?
The long-term effects of the virus on adults are still largely unknown, but concerns that infection may be linked to long-term nerve damage and brain and spinal cord inflammation are now being raised.
Is it safe to try for a baby after travelling to an infected area?
Zika can be spread via sexual intercourse but will not cause infections in a baby conceived after the virus is cleared from the blood. The World Health Organisation advises couples to use contraception or abstain from sex for at least eight weeks after returning from Zika-affected areas. If the male partner develops symptoms of the virus, this should be extended to six months.
How can I reduce my risk?
If you are pregnant or trying for a baby, it is advisable to avoid travelling to infected areas.
Although mosquito bites can’t be entirely avoided, the NHS recommends that you apply insect repellent to exposed skin, and wear loose clothing, covering the arms and legs.