Lately it seems like we can't go a single day without hearing something new and worrisome about Zika virus. From the first reports in May 2015 of a "new" mosquito-borne virus spreading through Brazil to the July 2016 confirmation that it had officially started to spread via mosquitos in Miami, we've learned everything we know about Zika at almost the same pace as the people researching the virus.
But more information doesn't necessarily translate to less fear. Jennifer Caudle, DO, family physician and assistant professor at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine. says the tone surrounding Zika has changed, especially since local transmission was reported in two areas of Miami and three U.S. territories.
"Maybe six months ago, there wasn't a reason for panic, there was reason for awareness," Dr. Caudle says. "While there's still no reason for panic, there is reason for action and concern."
The main thing that's cause for concern? Microcephaly and other severe birth defects, which can be caused when a pregnant woman is infected with Zika. As of August 18, 2016, there have been 584 pregnant women with lab evidence of Zika infection in the states and D.C., and 812 pregnant women in U.S. territories, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
"I don't think people really understand the significance of [microcephaly]," continues Caudle, who frequently speaks about Zika on national news programs. "[People with microcephaly] sometimes cannot hear, see, or feed themselves. They may not be able to walk, talk — this is a potential generation of children who might be born with special needs and require a lot of care. We don't want to be alarmists, but this is very real."
But while there are still many questions about the virus that have yet to be answered, there are other myths about Zika that need to be discredited. So before you lock yourself indoors until a vaccine is available — which is not expected to happen for several years — here are four reasons why Zika shouldn't raise your alarm to DEFCON 1:
1. Most mosquitoes in the United States do not have Zika.
During a White House briefing in April, the CDC announced that the type of mosquito that can carry Zika (the Aedes aegypti) can be found in more states (30 states) than experts had originally thought (12 states).
Unfortunately, this news quickly morphed into the myth that Zika-infected mosquitoes were all over the country.
But that is definitely not the case. The CDC's announcement merely meant that those states could be home to the type of mosquito that has the ability to be infected with the virus, explains Aubree Gordon, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology with the school of public health at the University of Michigan.
"In some of those states, those mosquitoes have been found, but they certainly may not be the dominant type of mosquito [in the state]," Dr. Gordon adds. "And it may be that there are pockets rather than the entire state having exposure."
Let's look at this through a different lens by replacing "mosquitoes that have the ability to have Zika" with "sad dolphins that have the ability to have sore throats." What does it mean if we say that sad dolphins that have the ability to have sore throats can be found in 30 states, including yours? It means there is probably at least one sad dolphin somewhere in your state, and that sad dolphin could potentially get a sore throat at some point. But does it mean you are surrounded by sad dolphins with sore throats no matter where you go in your state? Probably not. (At least we hope not – that is not a world in which we want to live.)
So if your state is one of the 40 states (the number increased in June) that may have Aedes aegypti, take a deep breath and know that your backyard is not currently overrun with mosquitoes waiting to give you Zika. (Nor is it filled with sad dolphins waiting to ask you for a throat lozenge.) Just follow basic mosquito bite-prevention practices, which includes wearing insect repellent and/or long-sleeved shirts and long pants, and go about your daily routine.
And if you're still worrying, here's a map from a June 2016 report in the Journal of Medical Entomology that shows the exact counties where Aedes aegypti have been reported at some point between January 1995 and March 2016:
2. Zika still does not pose a threat to the majority of Americans.
Before you start trying to make "mosquito-net chic" a fashion trend, understand that Zika is not a major threat to most people. In fact, many of those infected with the virus won't show symptoms — and the few who do will only experience mild ailments, such as fever, rash, joint pain, conjunctivitis (red eyes), muscle pain, and headache, for a few days to a week, according to the CDC.
"And usually, the people do not get sick enough with these symptoms to go the doctor or the hospital," Caudle adds. "Oftentimes, people don't even know they've been infected by it."
Aside from being bitten by an infected mosquito, the virus can be transmitted from mother to child, through sexual contact, or possibly by blood transfusion. (There have not been any confirmed blood transfusion transmission cases in the United States, according to the CDC.)
"However, pregnant women should not travel to areas where there's ongoing Zika transmission," Caudle says. "That's a fact."
If you are in a Zika zone, it's important to take precaution. "That means applying bug spray— bug spray is our friend!" Caudle says. She also recommends wearing clothing that covers your arms, torso, and legs, closing the windows, using the air conditioner, and staying away from standing pools of water. "These mosquitoes that carry Zika love little areas of water (like water that sits at the bottom of a flower pot), so get rid of any containers of water — just turn them over."
And because Zika can be transmitted through sexual contact, the CDC recommends using condoms.
3. Zika does not cause multiple sclerosis.
A lesser-known myth surrounding Zika stems from an April 2016 study that suggested Zika is associated with an autoimmune disorder that is similar to multiple sclerosis (MS).
The study did find a link between Zika and acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM) — a brief but intense attack of inflammation in the brain and spinal cord — as well as Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) — a rare condition that affects the nervous system and causes weakness and sometimes paralysis. But the small study did not prove that Zika causes those conditions, and it certainly didn't prove that it causes MS.
GBS is still a concern, but it's not something that should keep you up at night. In an August 2016 review of data published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers found that the number of GBS cases significantly increased in seven countries where the number of Zika cases also increased. So this does suggest that Zika and GBS are closely linked, but it's important to keep in mind that the proportion of GBS cases to Zika cases is still very small, meaning GBS is still a rare condition.
4. Panicking does you absolutely no good.
As is the case with, well, everything in life, worrying over Zika is pointless.
Remember when Ebola dominated the news back in the fall of 2014? Between September 2014 and October 2014, four Americans tested positive for the contagious disease, according to the CDC: The first patient had traveled to Liberia (one of the countries affected by Ebola), patients two and three were healthcare workers who had provided care for the first patient, and the last-known case was a doctor who returned to New York City from Guinea (where the disease began to spread in 2013) after working with Doctors Without Borders.
But for months, Fear-Bola was everywhere. Did it help anything? Nope.
So try to remember this and take your hand off the panic button. Instead, just stay aware of the status of Zika in your area, follow best practices for protecting yourself from infection, and live your life.
"I'm often saying on the news shows that it's important not to be alarmists, but we have to deal with the facts," Caudle says. "We don't have a treatment for Zika, there is no vaccine to protect us from Zika, and there's so much we don't know. But what we can do — where the hope is, because I do like to have the light at the end of the tunnel — is protect ourselves. So at least we know many of the ways we can be careful."