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Yes, the Zika virus is still a problem — here's what you need to know

While chatter about the Zika virus may not be breaking news any longer, it’s still around. The risks are highest for pregnant women and their babies, so let’s take a look at how Zika is contracted and how to avoid it in the first place.

What is the Zika virus?

The Zika virus is an illness that is transmitted via those pesky summertime pests, also known as mosquitoes, Dr. Erika Munch, a reproductive endocrinologist at Texas Fertility Center based in San Antonio, Texas, tells SheKnows. And while mosquito-borne viruses can be serious, she notes that unlike malaria or yellow fever, many people with Zika don’t show any outward symptoms of being sick, like having a fever or rash.

“Only about 20 percent of people infected with Zika show outward symptoms of illness, which can be mistaken for other viral illnesses,” she explains.

Zika is transmitted through bites from infected mosquitoes, but Munch notes that it can also be spread through bodily fluids. This means that sexually intimate couples can contract the virus from one another and is why it can possibly infect an unborn baby.

While the symptoms of Zika can be fairly mild and very few infected people will actually experience symptoms at all (and it’s even rarer to die from it), it’s important to know what it looks like. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the symptoms of Zika include:

  • Fever
  • Rash
  • Headache
  • Joint pain
  • Muscle pain
  • Conjunctivitis (inflammation or infection of the outer membrane of the eyeball and the inner eyelid)

But the big problem with Zika — the one that generates most of the headlines — is the harm it can cause developing fetuses.

“Most people who get infected with the Zika virus will not show any symptoms and will clear the viral infection within two to three weeks,” Munch says. “However, because Zika can affect rapidly dividing brain tissue, Zika is most concerning and dangerous to an unborn baby. Babies born to women who were infected with the Zika virus have had more head and brain birth defects than otherwise expected.”

How to prevent Zika

Of course, the main way to avoid the Zika virus is to stay indoors (and make sure your sex partner does the same) and never, ever go outside when mosquitoes are around. This is, of course, unreasonable. That being said, there are certain areas where Zika is more of a problem.

So far in 2018, the CDC has reported no Zika cases in the United States, but for those who live in Texas or Florida or pregnant women (or their partners) who intend to travel, there can be some concern. Parts of Mexico, certain countries in South America and Africa and areas in Asia (particularly India, its neighbors and island countries) are the riskiest places to travel while pregnant.

Dr. Barry Alto, an associate professor of entomology at the University of Florida/Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory, tells SheKnows why these areas are the biggest Zika hot spots today. “Zika virus spread to the Oceania region and caused outbreaks on Yap island in Micronesia in 2007 and in French Polynesia in 2013,” he says. “Zika virus was first discovered in Brazil in 2015 and spread throughout the Americas. It is estimated that 1.5 million people have been infected by the Zika virus in Brazil.​”

Munch has suggestions for those who may be concerned about Zika as they plan a pregnancy. “For any sexually intimate couple where there is a chance (intended or unintended!) for pregnancy, we recommend talking with your doctor about your travel plans and your particular risks,” she explains. She points out the CDC world map of areas with risk of Zika, which can help you cement plans (or abandon them).

She says that it’s possible your doctor may recommend canceling any unnecessary travel or that you take steps to prevent transmission of the Zika virus by preventing mosquito bites and minimizing risk of infection from your partner.

“It’s also smart to practice common sense strategies against Zika virus, including wearing long-sleeved clothing in areas prone to mosquitos, wearing EPA-registered insect repellent while outside and eliminating standing water around your home where mosquitos like to breed (such as in plant dishes, buckets or sunken parts of the yard),” Munch notes.

The bottom line? Live your life, but take care to avoid mosquitoes and traveling to high-risk areas, especially if you are (or plan to become) pregnant. And as Munch mentioned above, not all pregnancies are planned, so if you’re visiting a Zika-prone area, use protection to prevent pregnancy.

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