Common Misconceptions About the Zika Virus

By: Leah Casanave

Public health professionals are concerned with protecting the health of entire populations. An important part of this public health is disease research and the prevention and control of infectious diseases. Knowing that professionals in this field have been educated in disease control and know the proper precautions to take, they are often the best resource for educating the general public. In the case of the Zika virus epidemic, there has been a significant amount of misinformation spread since the topic began receiving headlines in early 2016.

In an effort to help separate fact from fiction, here are 5 common misconceptions about the Zika virus:

This is a new epidemic. (Don’t travel to Florida or Texas)

The Zika virus was first discovered in 1947 in the Zika forest in Uganda. The first human case was detected in 1952 and has been detected in tropical Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands (1, 3).

Prior to 2015, Zika outbreaks were primarily in areas of Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. It was in May 2015 that there was an alert regarding the first confirmed Zika virus infection in Brazil. Reported active transmission has been seen in Mexico, Latin America, Caribbean Islands and the northern and central part of South America (1).

As of April 6, 2016, there were 346 travel-associated Zika virus disease cases reported in the United States (1). In the United States, there have not been any cases of active transmission. There have been two cases of Zika virus in Nebraska, both had traveled to Zika-affected countries (2).

You can only get the Zika virus through mosquito bites.

The Zika virus is primarily transmitted through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitos are aggressive daytime biters, but also can bite at night.

Another way this virus can be spread is by a man to his sexual partners. In these known sexual transmission cases, the men developed symptoms and spread the virus before, during and after symptoms resolved. Of the 346 Zika cases reported in the United States, 7 of the cases were sexually transmitted (1).

A pregnant woman can pass the virus to her fetus during pregnancy. There have not been any reports of infants getting the virus through breastfeeding. Reports have been made in Brazil concerning blood transfusion transmission cases, but it is being investigated if this was truly the transmission route.

If you get Zika virus, you’ll experience devastating symptoms.

The most common symptoms of the Zika virus are fever, rash, joint pain, or red eyes (conjunctivitis). Some other symptoms include muscle pain and headache. Symptoms are usually mild and may last several days up to a week after being bitten. Many people usually don’t get sick enough to go to a hospital and people very rarely die from the virus (1). Approximately 20% of the individuals infected with the virus exhibit the mild symptoms (3). The virus usually remains in the blood of an infected individual for about a week and once infected, a person is most likely protected from future infections (1).

There is currently no vaccine to prevent the virus, nor or is there a medicine to treat the virus. To treat symptoms, an individual should get plenty of rest, drink plenty of fluids, and take acetaminophen (Tylenol) (1).

Women and children are at a greater risk for developing Zika. (If you’re not pregnant or planning on getting pregnant, you don’t need to worry about the Zika virus)

All individuals are at risk for contracting the Zika virus. Those at highest risk are those who live or traveling to an area where Zika virus is found and have not already been infected. Pregnant women can spread the Zika virus to the fetus which has been linked to a handful of health issues. The most serious is a birth defect of the brain called microcephaly, other symptoms include absent or poorly developed brain structures, hearing deficits and impaired growth (1).

CDC has stated, “Based on the available evidence, we think that the Zika virus infection in a woman who is not pregnant would not pose a risk for birth defects in future pregnancies after the virus has cleared from her blood (1).”

If a pregnant woman gets infected with Zika, she’s going to deliver a baby with birth defects.

Currently, CDC is conducting research to determine the likelihood of a pregnant woman who was infected with the Zika virus will deliver a baby with birth defects. Since May 2015, Brazil has had a severe increase in Zika virus cases and in the most recent months, there has been an increase in babies born with microcephaly. There is increasing evidence that there is a link between Zika and microcephaly, researchers are still unsure if it is a result of the mother’s Zika virus infection (1).

There are other problems that have been linked to the virus, but more information is needed to understand the extent of the virus’ impact. These other problems that have been detected among fetuses and infants infected with Zika virus before birth, such as absent or poorly developed brain structures, defects of the eye, hearing deficits and impaired growth(1).

Leah Casanave is an epidemiologist and Adjunct Professor in the Master of Public Health program at Creighton University. She currently works as the supervisor of the STD Prevention and Control Program at Douglas County Health Department. 

Sources:

1. Zika Virus. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. April 7, 2016. http://www.cdc.gov/zika/
2. Two Cases of Mosquito-borne Zika Virus Reported in Nebraska. Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. February 4, 2016. http://dhhs.ne.gov/Pages/newsroom_newsreleases_2016_february_Zika.aspx
3. Zika Virus. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health. March 31, 2016. https://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/zika/Pages/default.aspx