The Zika virus isn’t new – it was first discovered 70 years ago in the Zika forests of Uganda, but most people hadn’t heard about the disease until last year, when it started hitting the headlines.
In particular, pregnant women and those hoping to start a family have been alarmed by the reports from Brazil that the virus can cause serious birth defect in some babies. They’re born with microcephaly – where the brain hasn’t developed properly and the children have smaller heads than normal. There’s also new evidence that it can affect some babies’ eyesight. In adults, the disease is usually very mild, typically resulting in symptoms like fever, joint pain, rashes and headache. However, there have been some reports that it can cause a rare and serious neurological condition in adults called Guillain-Barré syndrome
Zika is carried by a specific type of mosquito that’s pretty widespread in countries around the equator and can be seen as far north as the USA and Italy or as far south as Australia. But so far, most cases of the disease have occurred in South and Central America, particularly Brazil, and the Caribbean.* There have also been some reports from parts of Central Africa, the Far East including Vietnam and Fiji in the Pacific.
So should you be worried? Well so far most of the warnings have been focused on women who are pregnant or who might be planning to get pregnant soon and particularly those travelling to Brazil. That could be a problem with the 2016 Summer Olympics coming up in Rio in a few weeks time. The UK government says pregnant women should reconsider any non-essential travel plans to areas where Zika is currently active. Those areas are changing fast as the disease spreads so you should check regularly. The Foreign Office recommends using Travel Health Pro. You should also avoid becoming pregnant for 28 days after arriving home.
There’s no treatment or preventative pills you can take yet. Scientists are rushing to develop a vaccine but it won’t be ready for at least two years. The advice is the same as for other serious, mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever – try to avoid getting bitten in the first place. Use a strong insect repellent, cover up with long-sleeved clothes and keep windows and doors closed. You should also be aware that taking anti-malaria drugs won’t protect you from the Zika virus.
The experts say the disease can linger in the body for a couple of weeks but they say it won’t cause problems to babies conceived after this time. However, they’ve warned that it could be transmitted through sexual contact for a similar length of time, so you might want to consider protection after you get back from travelling. And if you do feel unwell once you’re home, you should contact your doctor for advice.
*Full list of countries reporting Zika cases in the current epidemic:
The Caribbean: Aruba; Barbados; Bonaire; Cuba; Curaçao; Dominica; Dominican Republic; Grenada; Guadeloupe; Haiti; Jamaica; Martinique; the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, a US territory; Saint Barthelemy; Saint Lucia; Saint Martin; Saint Vincent and the Grenadines; Sint Maarten; Trinidad and Tobago; US Virgin Islands
Central America: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama
The Pacific Islands: American Samoa, Fiji, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga
South America: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Venezuela