Everything You Need to Know About the Zika Virus

The rare disease is on the rise in South America and affecting countless pregnant women.

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Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are seen in a lab at the Fiocruz institute on Jan. 26, 2016, in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil. The mosquito transmits the Zika virus and is being studied at the institute.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

When Gabrielle Fouché Williams left Brazil in January to return to the United States, she was four months pregnant with her first child. Williams had been living in Salvador, Brazil, for the last three years. The first few months of her pregnancy were difficult. Her doctor even put her on bed rest. But she expected the physical discomfort. She was having her first child.

She didn’t expect to experience the mental discomfort caused by media reports about the connection between the Zika virus and microcephaly, a birth defect in which a child’s head does not grow to a normal size. By the end of last year, she had made up her mind to return to the U.S. to give birth. 

“I would have panicky moments,” Williams said. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, will my baby have microcephaly?’”

In November 2015, just one-and-a-half months into her pregnancy, her doctor told her to start wearing mosquito repellent and long pants to avoid the mosquitoes that carry the virus.

“All the Zika stuff just solidified my decision about returning home,” said Williams, who owns a language consulting firm. “When I started getting messages from my American friends, that is when I really become concerned."

Williams represents the people who should be the most concerned about Zika: pregnant women. Although it has yet to be scientifically proved, recent reports suggest that the Zika virus can increase a woman’s chances of having a baby with microcephaly. Thankfully, Williams no longer has to worry about the Zika virus in Washington, D.C’s winter weather.

“I feel relieved being here,” Williams said. “It’s cold, but I’m relieved.”

Below is a brief explainer about the virus and its connection to microcephaly. 

What is the Zika virus?

Zika is a virus that is carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito and transmitted through its bite. It was first detected in 1947 in monkeys in Uganda. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 5 people infected with the Zika virus will display symptoms, most likely experiencing a fever, rash, joint pain or conjunctivitis. Other symptoms include muscle pain and headaches.

Since 80 percent of people infected with the virus don’t display symptoms, it is difficult to track how the virus is spreading. Recent reports are also saying that the Zika virus can be sexually transmitted. In a recent case in Dallas, a person was infected by a partner who had recently returned from Venezuela. There is no vaccine or cure for the Zika virus. 

Where can you catch the Zika virus? 

The current hotspots for the Zika virus are countries in Central and South America, in particular Brazil, where there are already 1 million suspected cases. Since it’s summertime in those countries and mosquitoes have a tendency to proliferate during those months, authorities expect the virus to spread.

Prior to 2015, the Zika virus was mainly found in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. But scientists suspect that the virus was transported to South America around the time of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The strain of the virus found in Brazil has origins in the Pacific Islands. Thus far, there have been no reported locally transmitted cases of the Zika virus in the United States. The virus has been contracted only by returning travelers. 

What is microcephaly?

Microcephaly is a birth defect in which a baby’s head—and, often, the brain—is smaller than those of babies of the same sex and age. This underdevelopment affects the child’s development for the rest of his or her life. In the United States, on average two babies per 10,000 are born with microcephaly.

Back in October of last year, doctors began to notice an explosion of babies with microcephaly in the northeastern states of Pernambuco and Paraíba in Brazil. In an average year, Brazil typically sees no more than 150 cases of microcephaly. Last year, however, there were more than 3,000 cases. In October, researchers began to suspect a connection between microcephaly and the Zika virus when many of the mothers of babies with the condition had red rashes from bouts with Zika. 

Is there a connection between microcephaly and the Zika virus?

Researchers suspect that there is a strong relationship between microcephaly and the Zika virus. In November the amniotic fluid of two women who had fetuses with microcephaly tested positive for the virus (pdf). Although the relationship is still not proved, it is highly suspected. The World Health Organization issued a global-health-emergency alert because of this possible strong relationship. 

Are there any other illnesses linked to the Zika virus?

Researchers have noted that some people infected with the virus have later been diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system.

What do you do about Zika and microcephaly if you are pregnant?

There is no travel restriction in any country where the Zika virus is present. But the Brazilian government is recommending that pregnant women or women trying to get pregnant avoid traveling to the country. If a pregnant woman must travel to any of these countries, then authorities are recommending that she cover up and use mosquito repellent

Kiratiana Freelon is a Rio de Janeiro-based multimedia journalist whose work focuses on social issues, international news and sporting events. She has published two books: one a travel guide to black Paris, and the other a travel guide to multicultural London. Visit her blog and follow her on Twitter.

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