The Zika Virus: What You Need to Know

President Obama receives an update on our response to the Zika virus President Barack Obama convenes a meeting on the Zika virus, in the Situation Room of the White House, Jan. 26, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

If you’ve been thinking about traveling to warmer climates or have been catching a few news stories, you may have heard about something called the Zika virus — a disease spread primarily through mosquito bites.

Zika causes mild illness in some, however, we are closely tracking and responding to recent outbreaks of this virus because the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued reports that indicate Zika may be linked to serious birth defects in babies of mothers who were infected with this virus while pregnant.

While this virus is not new, it is new to the Americas. The first case was reported in Brazil just last spring. Since that time, it has spread through South and Central America, and the Caribbean. No locally transmitted Zika cases from mosquitoes have been reported in the continental U.S., but cases have been reported in travelers returning from areas where Zika is present. As Zika continues to spread in our region, the number of cases among travelers visiting or returning to the U.S. is likely to increase.

As a mother, I know how important it is to have all the information you need to keep yourself and your family healthy and safe. There is still much we don’t know about this virus. To help keep you up-to-date as we learn more, we have all the latest updates you need in one place: www.cdc.gov/Zika.

Here are a few answers to questions many Americans may have about the virus, how it spreads, and who is at risk.

What is the Zika virus?

The Zika virus is spread primarily through the bite of an infected mosquito. These are the same mosquitoes that spread other viruses like dengue and chikungunya. Only about one in five people infected with the Zika virus will feel sick. In those that do, symptoms are usually mild and can include fever, rash, joint pain and red eye.

Learn more about symptoms and diagnosis here.

How is Zika transmitted?

Zika is primarily spread to people through the bite of infected Aedes mosquitoes. It can also be transmitted from a pregnant mother to her baby during pregnancy, though we do not know how often that transmission occurs.

Where are people contracting Zika?

People are contracting Zika in areas where Aedes mosquitoes are present, which include South America, Central America and the Caribbean. As the CDC notes, specific areas where the Zika virus is being transmitted are likely to change over time, so please check here for the most updated information.

Who is at risk of being infected?

Anyone who is living in or traveling to an area where the virus is found is at risk for infection.

Why are there specific recommendations for pregnant women?

There may be a link between a serious birth defect called microcephaly — a condition in which a baby’s head is smaller than expected– and other poor pregnancy outcomes and a Zika infection in a mother during pregnancy. While the link between Zika and these outcomes is being investigated the CDC recommends that you take special precautions if you fall into one of these groups:

  • If you are pregnant (in any trimester):
    • You should consider postponing travel to any area where the Zika virus is active.
    • If you must travel to an active region, talk to your doctor first and follow the steps to prevent mosquito bites during your trip.
  • If you are trying to become pregnant:
    • Before you travel, talk to your doctor about your plans to become pregnant and the risks posed from infection.

If you fall into one of these groups, the CDC has provided thorough information on what you should do here.

What can I do to prevent a Zika infection?

Right now, there is no vaccine to prevent this disease. The best way to prevent diseases by mosquitoes is to protect yourself from getting bitten. Here’s how:

  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants.
  • Stay in places with air conditioning or that use window, door screens, and netting to keep mosquitoes outside.
  • Use Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellents. All EPA-registered insect repellents are evaluated for safety and effectiveness.
  • Treat clothing and gear with permethrin or purchase permethrin-treated items.
  • Sleep under a mosquito bed net if you are overseas or outside and are not able to protect yourself from mosquito bites.

You can get a more in-depth explanation of prevention measures from the CDC here.

Should we be concerned about Zika in the United States?

The U.S. mainland does have Aedes species mosquitoes that can become infected with and spread Zika virus. U.S. travelers who visit a country where Zika is found could become infected if bitten by a mosquito.

With the recent outbreaks in the Americas, the number of Zika virus disease cases among travelers visiting or returning to the United States will likely increase. These imported cases may result in local spread of the virus in some areas of the United States. CDC has been monitoring these epidemics and is prepared to address cases imported into the United States and cases transmitted locally.

The President recently met with CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden and his other health and national security advisors to discuss the potential spread of the Zika virus in the U.S. He emphasized the need to accelerate research efforts to make available diagnostic tests, to develop vaccines and therapeutics, and to ensure that all Americans have information about the Zika virus and steps they can take to better protect themselves.

You can stay up-to-date on all the latest information here: www.cdc.gov/zika

Amy Pope is Deputy Assistant to the President for Homeland Security