Everything you wanted to know about Zika but were too confused to ask

You’ve been hearing a lot about a scary sounding virus called Zika. It’s spread through mosquitoes and there’s a major outbreak in Latin America that could be headed to Florida next. The World Health Organization declared it a global health emergency and President Obama’s asking Congress to approve $1.9 billion in funding for prevention and treatment.

Both Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio backed the President’s request, and you know it’s serious when it brings Republicans and Democrats together. Even Gov. Rick Scott has been running around Capitol Hill begging for money to combat it.

Florida’s a high-risk state because there’s lots of travel between South America and Florida and the mosquito that carries it lives here year around. As summer approaches, the numbers are bound to rise. Some of you sent in questions you had, and we’ve done our best to answer them. Got any more? Let us know in the comments below. 

What is the Zika virus?

Zika is a virus spread by the Aedes aegypti and the Aedes albopictus mosquitoes. Mosquitos carrying Zika have been found in Africa, Asia, and South America.

We have those mosquitoes in the US too, just minus the infection. They thrive in the areas outlined in the maps below.

Where did it come from?

The Zika virus was first found in a rhesus monkey in Zika forest, Uganda in 1947. The next year it was found in mosquitoes there. People first showed signs of the virus in Nigeria in 1954.

The virus spread throughout sub-Saharan Africa and  Asia. The first outbreak was in 2007 on the Yap Island, off of the coast of the Philippines — 70 percent of the people there were infected.

 In 2013 there was another outbreak in French Polynesia. In 2015, the virus reached Brazil — the first touchdown in the Americas. Now it may be headed northward. That’s why there are billboards all over Miami warning you to dump out buckets of standing water — mosquitoes thrive on that kind of stuff.

What does it do?

Plenty of people infected with Zika virus won’t know because they don’t have symptoms, according to the CDC. If you do have symptoms, they’ll likely include fever, rash, joint pain, or red eyes lasting for seven to 10 days. You might also feel muscle pain or a headache. (The CDC is looking into whether it causes Guillain-Barré syndrome, which causes muscle weakness and paralysis, there are a few cases that indicate some relationship.)

For pregnant women, it’s a bigger problem. Zika infection can cause severe birth defects like microcephaly, which is an abnormally small head leading to stunted brain development.

Have scientists established a connection between Zika and microcephaly?

Yes. In the beginning it was just an observation — you know the instances of Zika rose and then boom, nine months later, so did the rates of microcephaly.

But last month, the CDC announced something that was kind of a big deal — that there was a clear and definite link between Zika and microcephaly and other brain-related birth defects. They backed that claim up with a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. 

Can you get Zika in the United States?

Yes and No.  

You can’t get Zika via a mosquito bite in the US because there aren’t any infected mosquitoes here. Men can transmit it via semen though, so use protection if you’re having sex with a man who might be infected.

However, there are three US territories that have infected mosquitoes: Puerto Rico, the nearby US Virgin Islands, and the way farther away American Samoa out in the Pacific.         

How many people have Zika in the US — and did they all get it in Puerto Rico?!

544 people in the US have Zika, with 109 of them in Florida. All but 10 of them got it from a mosquito outside the US.  Those other 10 people got it from having sex with someone who was infected.

How can you test for it?

In the first week that you start showing symptoms, you can get a blood test. You can do a urine test within 14 days of showing symptoms. You’d get the results in about three weeks.

But even if you don’t feel any symptoms, you could still have Zika and just not know it. So you’d never get tested and probably don’t need to because it’d likely just go away on its own.  

So if it’s harmless most of the time, why are we calling it an emergency?

The WHO doesn’t slap down the term global health emergency lightly. It did that this time because of the possible link to microcephaly. Also, these mosquitoes are getting pretty far afield, there are no vaccines, the tests are kind of slow, and there’s little to no immunity in humans.

So if scary Zika mosquitoes aren’t in the US yet, why does President Obama need all that money? 

It’s preventative, for things like education, mosquito control, vaccine development, and helping Zika-infected countries curb transmission. The WHO says that if Brazil had done a better job controlling its mosquito population, it might not be in this sitch.

Alright, so how can I avoid getting Zika?

Don’t go to countries where there are Zika infected mosquitoes. Use protection if you’re having sex with a Zika-infected male. Use insect repellent and wear long sleeves when you’re outside. And be a good citizen — don’t leave things around that will attract mosquitoes: buckets of standing water, pools without a running pump, that kind of thing.