What is Zika Virus and Should I be Concerned?

mosquito

It has been well documented that women who are pregnant should avoid areas that might expose them to the mosquito-borne virus, but what is Zika virus and what risks does it carry?

“Zika virus was first detected in Africa in the 1920s,” says Dr. Petronella Adomako of McKay-Dee Hospital. “Its name, Zika, comes from the Zika forest in Uganda.”

Adomako says the first human case of the virus was detected in Uganda in 1950, but there was not a human case detected in North America until 2015.

Transmitting Zika

“Zika virus tends to be transmitted by mosquitos, and the symptoms are mainly fever, rash, joint pain and sometimes pink eyes,” she says.

“The reason why we have a concern with the virus right now is the possible link to microcephaly, or birth defects in infants. Microcephaly is when the baby’s head circumference is smaller than the third percentile of their age. This can cause poor development of the brain or allow abnormalities of the brain to develop.”

Adomako says that tests have suggested a link from cases of microcephaly to the Zika virus, but they have not been confirmed.

“The idea is that we don’t want women to become exposed while they are pregnant.”

She says that women who are not pregnant and become exposed to the virus are not as at risk as those who are.

“If you are not pregnant and become exposed, you don’t have as many things to be worried about. We are still learning about the virus though. The recommendation from the CDC is that if you are thinking about becoming pregnant you should discuss with your provider before you travel to a place that has Zika transmissions.”

RELATED: Postpone Travel to Areas Affect with Zika Virus

There have been reported transmissions in the United States, but Adomako says Utah is at less risk than other places.

“In Utah we do not have any cases of Zika virus transmissions,” she says. “This is because it is transmitted by the mosquito known as Aedes aegypti. We do not have that type of mosquito in the state of Utah. So it is unlikely that mosquito-borne transmissions would occur here.”

Mosquitos are not the only way the virus is transmitted, however. Adomako says it can be transmitted sexually and through bodily fluids.

“We believe it can be transmitted sexually,” she says. “Zika virus has been detected in semen, and there was a case in Texas where a woman who had been with a man who was infected tested positive.”

She says that women who are pregnant can transmit the virus to their unborn babies as well. The virus can also be transmitted through blood transfusions. She says being aware of the risks and taking proper precautions is important.

“Even if a male partner travels to an area with Zika transmissions, the couple should practice safe sex or even abstain during the duration of the pregnancy.”

The suspected incubation period for Zika virus is approximately two weeks, says Adomako. She says symptoms can start appearing after that time. She says people showing symptoms after traveling to a place with Zika transmissions can be tested for the virus, but it is not required for everyone.

“The populations we are concerned with now are the pregnant people due to the risks of microcephaly. If those women have been to affected areas and demonstrate the symptoms we recommend they see a health care provider and be tested.”

Adomako says those who have been infected and treated typically can build immunity to the virus. 

“Once you have been infected and the body has fought off the infection, the body builds an immune response,” she says. “Most people tend to be a-symptomatic meaning many people who are exposed might not show symptoms.”

Risk of Zika

The risk is low for Zika transmission in Utah, but it does exist. If you are planning on traveling to an affected area, talk it over with your healthcare provider. Protective clothing and mosquito repellent can help keep the risk at bay, and taking proper precautions can help prevent an infection from the Zika virus.