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What you need to know about Zika virus

Gabriel BorrudJanuary 19, 2016

Amid the ongoing spread of Dengue fever within and even outside the tropics, another mosquito-borne illness has disease specialists alarmed. DW takes a look at the basic facts surrounding the Zika virus.

Aedes aegypti mosquitos are seen in containers at a lab. (Photo: NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images/AFP/N. Almeida

Officials in 14 countries are scrambling to contain an outbreak of the vector borne pathogen known as Zika virus, following international warnings that the disease can lead to birth defects if women contract it while pregnant.

Where has the virus been detected?

The first documented case was in Uganda in 1947. Until 2015, the disease remained dormant in equatorial countries in Africa, Asia and the Pacific Islands.

There was an unprecedented spike in reported Zika cases in 2015, with the virus spreading to a host of South American countries that include Brazil, host of upcoming Carnival celebrations and the Summer Olympic Games later this year.

Brazil sees a large number of travelers each year. If they get infected, there's the chance that they'll spread the virus in their home countries.

New reports by the World Health Organization state that the virus is likely to spread through all nations in the Americas except for Canada and Chile. Three cases were already reported in New York City.

What are the dangers for humans?

Only one in five people who contract Zika display symptoms of the disease, which include nausea, irritability, rash, red eyes and significant joint pain.

In rare cases, hospitalization is required. Less than 0.01 percent of all reported cases were fatal.

However, this doesn't mean there are no health risks associated with the disease.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Zika virus is behind an otherwise inexplicable increase in microcephaly, a birth defect that causes infants to be born with smaller skulls and can lead to permanent brain damage.

The CDC says there were 30 times more cases of Zika reported in Brazil last year than in any year since 2010. As a result, it has advised pregnant women against travelling to Brazil, as well as the following countries: Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Suriname, and Venezuela.

What should you do if you contract Zika?

First of all, stay in bed. Health officials also recommend drinking lots of water, and if you have pain, they recommend taking acetiminophen or paracetamol rather than ibuprofen, which can cause bleeding if the patient is misdiagnosed and actually suffering from Dengue fever.

BdW Global Ideas Bild der Woche KW 01/2016 Moskito Dengue Fieber Impfstoff
Zika virus, as well as dengue and yellow fever, are kept alive by mosquitoesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Amador

The CDC has asked those who contract the virus to redouble efforts to avoid mosquito bites. If an uninfected mosquito bites an infected human, that mosquito can then transmit the pathogen to other humans.

Does a vaccine exist?

No. At this point, no such pharmaceutical endeavor is known.

What can be done to prevent transmission?

The only way to prevent Zika virus is to avoid mosquito bites. Apart from possible transmission from mother to newborn, or fetus, the disease can only be contracted from the aedes species of mosquito.

South American cities included in the CDC's travel alert have begun instructing residents to remove stagnant water and avoid damp, swampy areas. If possible, residents should apply mosquito repellent whenever outside.