An outbreak of the Zika virus appears to be linked to birth defects like microcephaly. Here’s what you need to know about Zika and what it means for you and your family. 

This Q&A originally appeared on The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s PolicyLab blog, where you can read the original post.

Pregnant women Yes, news stories about the mosquito-borne Zika virus that’s spreading throughout Central and South America are concerning. The World Health Organization has declared the Zika virus outbreak an international public health emergency. And because the virus is strongly suspected to be linked to microcephaly, a rare birth defect that causes a baby’s head to be abnormally small, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has advised pregnant women against traveling to affected areas.

“While it’s important for the public and the healthcare community to take the Zika virus seriously, it’s also important to realize that the risk of Zika virus infection remains very low unless one is traveling to an affected area,” says Susan Coffin, MD, MPH, clinical director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).  “Most people in the U.S. have little reason to worry.”

So what should you do about Zika? You can start by arming yourself with the facts. Here, Dr. Coffin answers common questions about the Zika virus.

Q: What is the Zika virus? And what are the symptoms of Zika virus infection?

A: Zika virus is a Flavivirus, a group of viruses that includes other mosquito-spread diseases such as West Nile and dengue Fever. Although we still have much to learn about infections caused by the Zika virus, it appears that most people who get infected do not have any obvious symptoms. However, approximately one in five infected people develop a flu-like illness with fever, muscle aches and a rash. Some people also have conjunctivitis (red and irritated eyes). Typically, the illness resolves within a week.

Q: How is the Zika virus usually spread?

A: Zika virus is mainly spread by the Aedes mosquito, a type of mosquito that typically bites people during the daytime. The disease is spread when an infected mosquito bites an uninfected person. 

Q: Are there other ways Zika can spread?

A: At present, we don’t fully understand all the possible ways that the Zika virus can spread. There is some new evidence that suggests the Zika virus can be spread through sexual contact although we don’t know if this is a common way the virus is spread. There are also concerns that the virus might be spread through blood transfusions, but this has not yet been proven.

Q: Why is Zika spreading so rapidly now?

A: The Zika virus has been around for more than 50 years. In the past, it mainly caused small, localized outbreaks in rural or secluded areas. We are unsure why the Zika virus is now spreading more rapidly, but it may be related to poor mosquito control in urban settings and increased international travel.

Q: What is microcephaly and how is it connected to the Zika virus?

A: Microcephaly is a term used to refer to babies who are born with abnormally small heads. It’s unclear how the Zika virus causes microcephaly, but it appears to inhibit a baby’s brain growth during pregnancy, which then leads to reduced head growth.

Q: How does microcephaly impact a child’s development?

A: Because microcephaly is usually associated with impaired brain growth, it is commonly associated with developmental delays and other disabilities. Some children who are thought to have Zika virus-related microcephaly have had vision and hearing impairments as well as moderate-to-severe learning disabilities.

Q: What precautions should pregnant women take?

A: As of now, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that women who are pregnant avoid traveling to countries where the Zika virus has been detected and to use a condom if they have sex with someone who has been to a Zika-affected country.

Q: Are there any precautions everyone else should take?

A: For people who live in or plan on traveling to countries where there is Zika virus, the best strategy to prevent infection is to avoid mosquito bites. Simple strategies such as wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts and using mosquito repellants will provide some protection.

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