What Exactly Is Zika Virus — and Should We Be Worried?

The World Health Organization has declared its spread an international public health emergency. Before you wrap your entire family in mosquito netting, give this a read.

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The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the spread of Zika virus across the Americas an international public health emergency, largely because the virus appears to be linked to brain damage in babies. The Pan American Health Organization estimates as many as 4 million people could be exposed to the virus over the next year. Yikes, right? No doubt you have a ton of questions — and we've got answers.

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The basics: Zika virus spreads via mosquitos, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has advised pregnant women and women trying to become pregnant to postpone travel to areas with reported cases, which include most of Central and South America, the Caribbean, Samoa, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. Now let's get into the details:

The Mosquito Bites Heard Around the World

People in the United States are talking about this "overseas virus" for two reasons, says Kamran Khan, MD, MPH, co-author of a January 2016 study in The Lancet that looked at the virus' potential to spread internationally.

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"First, it's a virus from Africa and Asia that has newly arrived in the Western Hemisphere, triggering a large-scale epidemic in just a matter of months," he says.

The virus' arrival in the West was reported in May 2015 when The World Health Organization confirmed the first autochthonous (locally acquired) case in Brazil.

And now, less than a year later, "it is estimated that there are one to two million cases of Zika virus infection across close to twenty countries in South America, Central America and some parts of the Caribbean," Dr. Khan says.

Meet the Mosquitos

The second reason Zika virus is getting so much attention has to do with the types of mosquitos that transmit the virus, Khan says.

"The primary mosquito that can transmit Zika virus, (Aedes aegypti, aka the yellow fever mosquito) is found in parts of the southeastern United States, specifically in Florida, the Gulf Coast areas, and parts of Texas," Khan says. "Whereas a potential secondary mosquito (Aedes albopictus, aka the Asian tiger mosquito) is found along much of the eastern half of the United States, as far north as New York."

No Zika Virus Cases Have Originated in the United States

If you live in one of the areas Khan mentioned, don't panic. There have been no cases of local transmission (meaning the person got the virus from an infected mosquito in that area) in the United States — so far. Infections have been reported in travelers returning to the states, and the CDC says it's possible "these imported cases may result in human-to-mosquito-to-human spread of the virus," so it's likely the number of Zika virus cases in the United States will increase.

Zika Virus Is Usually Mild and Hospitalization Is Uncommon

Before you start trying to make "mosquito-net chic" a fashion trend, you should know that even if Zika does spread to the United States, it's not a major threat to most people. Only about one in five people infected with the virus will actually become ill, and most of those people will experience mild symptoms — such as fever, rash, joint pain, conjunctivitis (red eyes), muscle pain, and headache — for a few days to a week, according to the CDC. Only the most severe cases require hospitalization, and deaths are extremely rare.

Pregnant Women Should Be More Cautious

More studies are needed to know exactly how Zika virus affects pregnancy, but there is growing evidence that suggests the infection in pregnant women can lead to microcephaly in a newborn. (The baby is born with a small head and an underdeveloped brain.)

Khan recommends expectant mothers take steps to protect themselves from mosquito bites, such as wearing long clothing and applying insect repellent. (Look for EPA-registered repellents, which are safe to use for pregnant women and women who are breastfeeding.)

There Is No Treatment for Zika Virus

If you think you have the symptoms mentioned above and have recently traveled to an area where Zika has been reported, visit your doctor. Dengue and chikungunya are also spread through the same mosquitos that transmit Zika, so your doctor may order blood tests to look for those viruses, as well.

If someone does have Zika virus, the best approach — as is the case with many viral infections — is to treat the symptoms. You know the drill: Get plenty of rest, drink lots of fluids, and take acetaminophen for fever and pain if necessary.

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