The Facts on Zika

Doctors say U.S. danger is minimal—but awareness is key.

A scientist in Miami tests mosquito larvae for the Zika virus.
A scientist in Miami tests mosquito larvae for the Zika virus.
Photograph: Joe Raedle /Getty Images.

The zika virus has been making headlines for months, raising more questions than the medical community can answer. But one thing seems to be clear: There’s no reason to push the panic button.

Zika has been around since the 1950s, with symptoms including fever, aches, pains, headache and conjunctivitis. Named for a forest in Uganda, Zika was first seen in Africa and the Pacific Islands. Then, in 2015, Zika’s presence was confirmed in Brazil. It has since spread north to Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean, carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, also known to spread dengue and the chikungunya virus. Experts confirm a northern path in the migration of Aedes aegypti, and while it is more common in Florida, along the Gulf Coast and in Hawaii, it has been found in hot weather as far north as Washington, D.C. The World Health Organization predicts it will continue the northerly path this summer.

Once contracted, the illness typically goes away in one to two weeks; the likelihood of significant complications is low. The overwhelming concern, however, is the impact Zika can have on a developing fetus. Yet data on such complications remain inconclusive. “We just don’t know the likelihood of a Zika infection causing a congenital malformation,” says Dr. Adam Jarrett, executive vice president for medical affairs and chief medical officer at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck. The feared congenital malformation is called microcephaly, which Jarrett describes as “a small head and a small brain.” He continues, “These kids are not going to be normal, healthy kids. They are going to have significant congenital problems and maybe even die at a very young age, depending on the severity.”

At deadline, 17 cases of Zika had been identified in New Jersey, and one baby, a little girl, had been born with Zika-related microcephaly. Her mother had apparently contracted Zika in Honduras.

According to Jarrett, the odds are very low for a pregnant woman to contract Zika in the United States. “There’s not been a single case in the United States of Zika that is not tied back to someone who traveled to one of the epidemic areas,” says Jarrett. “If you are traveling outside the country to those epidemic areas, there is concern.”

The Centers for Disease Control recommends that pregnant women and women who are considering getting pregnant avoid travel to the affected areas at this time. The CDC advises using its Travelers’ Health website (wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel) for updates.

The good news if you are headed to the Jersey Shore this month is that Zika is not considered a threat at beach resorts. That’s because beaches are generally too breezy for mosquitoes, and most hotels are air-conditioned, with windows closed. In fact, there is likely more danger of coming into contact with a mosquito in your own backyard (see sidebar).

The bottom line is caution—and an awareness of how the virus is transmitted. Recently, it was learned that Zika can be present in semen.

“If you’re going to be sexually active,” says Jarrett, “and you’re concerned that your partner has Zika, you need to be aware of that and you need to be very careful.”

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