How can I protect my family from Zika virus?

Article at a Glance

  • Mosquito season in Utah runs from mid-spring through early autumn.
  • Zika is primarily spread through the bite of infected mosquitoes, though the virus can also be spread through sexual contact.
  • Traditional mosquito avoidance methods are the most effective at preventing the spread of Zika.

Mosquito season in Utah — mid-spring through early fall — brings with it concern about illnesses such as West Nile Virus. You may also be concerned about Zika, another illness that is primarily spread by mosquitoes. Fortunately, the type of mosquitoes that are known to transmit Zika (Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus species) are not typically found in Utah.

What is it?

Zika is an illness that is primarily spread by the bite of infected mosquitoes. It causes minimal symptoms in most people; however, Zika gained international attention in 2015 when Brazil reported a surge in birth defects among newborns whose mothers had been exposed to the Zika virus.

Who is at risk?

The worst effects of Zika infection occur in expectant mothers and their unborn babies. Any adult or child can contract Zika if they are bitten by an infected mosquito, and generally only mild illness will result. In pregnant women, however, Zika infection may cause birth defects or pregnancy loss. Of the 250 pregnant women in the U.S. who had confirmed Zika infection in 2016, about one in 10 had a fetus or baby with Zika-related birth defects, such as brain abnormalities or microcephaly, where a baby’s head measures smaller than expected.

Although Zika is primarily transmitted by mosquitoes, the virus can also be spread through sexual contact, including during pregnancy. Men who have been exposed to Zika may be able to transmit the virus sexually for up to six months. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that before trying to conceive, women should wait at least eight weeks and men should wait at least six months after the last possible exposure to Zika.

What are the symptoms?

Only 20 percent of those with the virus will develop any noticeable symptoms. The most common symptoms are fever, joint pain, rash, headache, and conjunctivitis — or pink eye. These symptoms are generally mild and last up to a week. Most people don’t require hospitalization for Zika infection, and it is very rare for the virus to be fatal.

How is it treated?

There is no specific medication to treat Zika, so treatment is focused on easing symptoms by resting and staying hydrated. Ask your doctor about pain medication such as acetaminophen for any fever or pain.

What about complications?

Like several other viral infections, Zika virus can also cause Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a rare autoimmune illness and neurological disorder that can lead to nerve damage, muscle weakness, or paralysis. Recent evidence shows Zika infection may also be linked to heart disease. Research is ongoing into this and other possible complications of Zika virus in adults and children.

How can I protect my family?

Since the Aedes species mosquitoes that can transmit Zika are not common in Utah, the main precautions you can take to protect your family involve being cautious when traveling. According to the CDC, 21 cases of Zika were reported in Utah in 2016. In all cases, the infection was related to travel outside of the U.S. According to the Utah Department of Health, two pregnant women who contracted Zika while traveling outside the country experienced pregnancy loss due to the virus after returning to Utah.

Zika virus has been reported in Mexico, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the Pacific Islands, Central America and South America. Within the continental United States, most Zika infections have occurred in people who recently traveled to one of these areas and became infected while traveling. Local mosquito-borne transmission of the virus has only been documented in Florida and Texas. For the most up-to-date travel recommendations based on Zika infection risk, visit the CDC website.

Follow these tips to avoid mosquito bites when traveling:

  • Use insect repellent containing DEET. Follow the instructions on the label carefully, noting how often to reapply and whether the product is safe for babies and children.
  • Take extra care at dusk and dawn when mosquitoes are most active.
  • Wear light-colored clothing with maximum coverage. Mosquitoes are attracted to dark colors and will bite any area of exposed skin.
  • Avoid any standing water where mosquitoes breed.
  • Make use of insect nets around beds, and screens on windows and doors.

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