The Zika Virus: What You Need to Know

Since the Zika virus was first discovered in 1947, it has been confined to a relatively mild disease that produces only flu-like symptoms. However, as of late 2015, there have been more than 20 countries and territories reporting cases of Zika virus infection. In pregnant women who catch the Zika virus from a mosquito bite during pregnancy, it can cause birth defects including microcephaly (an abnormally small head), life-threatening intrauterine growth restriction (low birth weight) and other serious brain abnormalities. The World Health Organization declared an international public health emergency on Mondayafter confirming connections between the virus and these devastating effects on unborn children.

The Zika virus belongs to the flavivirus family. It was first isolated by scientists from a monkey in Uganda and is named after the Zika forest where it was discovered. A new strain of the virus, known as Asian-Zika, has been detected in countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. According to the World Health Organization , one of its most common symptoms is a mild fever.  In addition, Zika may also cause conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain, malaise or a rash including flat blotches of pale white spots on your body.

The virus can be transmitted from mother to unborn child through the placenta. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warn about the possibility of further spread in North America because approximately 80 percent of people with the virus are asymptomatic, meaning they do not show symptoms .

At this time, there is no vaccine or treatment available for Zika virus. Although the disease was previously thought to be transmitted only by the Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes, researchers have now detected Zika in Culex quinquefasciatus , commonly known as the southern house mosquito.

While these mosquitoes are prevalent throughout North America where much of the population lives in air conditioned homes, the Aedes mosquitoes are typically found more in tropical and sub-tropical conditions.

The southern house mosquito is more prevalent, especially in human habitats not native to their habitat. These mosquitoes feed at night, making them less likely to infect people during daylight hours when outdoor activities are common. However, it’s important to remember that all three species of mosquitoes can feed at all times of the day.

Zika Virus in the United States and Canada
Although it is still early in 2016, North America has not been hit with a large-scale Zika virus outbreak yet. If you live in the United States or Canada, there’s no reason to panic right now since health officials are working diligently to mitigate the danger of Zika. “It’s particularly important for pregnant women to take extra care at this time, including avoiding mosquito bites and seeking medical advice if they develop symptoms,” Dr. Danuta Skowronski of the British Columbia Center for Disease Control told CTV Vancouver.

Health officials in both countries are likely launching a full-scale public awareness campaign in light of the fact that seven babies with Zika-linked microcephaly have been born in Brazil.  In fact, these children are now surviving when only a few weeks ago, they were assumed to be stillborn or die shortly after birth.

In January 2016, it is estimated that there have been between one and four cases of Zika virus in Canada, with a total of 13 confirmed cases in the United States.  All but one case were contracted outside of both countries, although that certainly doesn’t rule out the possibility that some mosquitoes carrying Zika may already be living or traveling within these two North American countries.

Health officials in North America are working full-time to determine how long it takes for the virus to incubate and whether or not there is a possibility that people could be infected and spread Zika without showing major symptoms. Additional tests include monitoring and reporting populations of Aedes mosquitoes within specific geographical areas, as well as using computer models to track mosquito egg rafts.

In the United States, approximately 529 people have been hospitalized as a result of Zika virus since January 2015 for symptoms such as fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes. Of those admitted to hospitals with Zika-like symptoms from Jan. 1 through Jan. 27, 2016, 32 individuals reported travel to Latin American countries where mosquito