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Understanding and Protecting Against the Zika Virus

While the warm weather means barbecues and baseball, it also means bugs -- in particular, mosquitoes.

Mosquitoes spread malaria, and yellow and dengue fever, among other diseases. This year, however, a new disease has come to the fore: Zika virus. Its emergence in Venezuela, Brazil, and other South and Central American locales has caused many people to rethink their travel plans. What do you need to know to protect you and yours from infection?

Where Is the Virus?

Until recently, Zika virus outbreaks were mostly confined to Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Pacific Islands, with closer-to-home mosquito-borne transmission reported in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa, according to the CDC. In recent months, however, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) reported that the Aedes mosquito -- the mosquito responsible for Zika transmission -- has been found in all countries in the Americas except Canada and continental Chile. (Locally based cases of Zika have yet to be found in the U.S. Any identified cases have been travel-related.)

How Is It Transmitted?

Mostly found in tropical regions, the Zika virus is transmitted by an infected female Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is the type also known for spreading dengue fever, yellow fever, and West Nile virus. The mosquito contracts the virus from an infected person and then transmits it by biting another person. Zika can also be transmitted sexually. It's also important to note that there is currently no vaccine to prevent or treat the Zika virus.

Risk Factors and Symptoms

The symptoms of the virus are mild and include fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis. Up to 80 percent of people with Zika virus, however, are unaware of their infection because they display no symptoms, according to PAHO.

Despite its mild symptoms, there may be cause for concern for pregnant women (or women planning to become pregnant), who can transmit the virus to their unborn child. Countries with an increase in the virus have also seen an increase in the number of infants born with congenital microcephaly -- a birth defect that causes a baby's head and brain to be smaller, leading to lifelong developmental struggles.

How to Protect Yourself

Prevention is the best policy when it comes to Zika virus:

  • Mosquito control. PAHO recommends that everyone do their part to reduce mosquito populations by emptying standing water (a breeding ground for mosquitoes) and spraying pesticides.
  • Avoid travel. If you're pregnant, the CDC recommends that you don't travel to infected regions. Speak with your doctor about risks and prevention if you must travel.
  • Inhibit transmission. Wear thick, protective clothing to prevent mosquito bites, including long sleeves and pants, and tuck pants into boots or socks. Use mosquito repellent and sleep in rooms with screened windows and air conditioning, or use a mosquito net. Additionally, practicing safe-sex is of the utmost importance if your partner is infected with the virus.

Zika is a hot topic right now, and prevention should be the name of the game if you're pregnant or expect to be pregnant in the near future, particularly as you consider upcoming travel plans. If you've already spent time in regions where the virus is present, it's worth getting checked by your doctor, even if you don't feel sick -- and even if you're not pregnant or planning for a pregnancy. It pays to be overcautious, particularly with conditions that don't often show symptoms.

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