Zika: What you need to know

Aileen M. Marty, M.D.
Director, FIU Health Travel Medicine Program and Vaccine Clinic


What is Zika?

Zika is a word in an African language (Luganda) that means "Overgrown".  It was the name given to a small forest in Uganda.  A virus that was first recognized in the Zika Forest in 1947 was given the name of the forest and is called, the "Zika Virus"

What is Zika Virus?

The Zika virus is a small microbe that loves brain tissue and can spread from person to person in various ways. Certain infected Aedes mosquitos are particularly good at spreading the infection. In the Americas the mosquito that spreads it best is Aedes aegypti; although we have good reason to believe that Aedes albopictus can also spread the virus.

How do people get infected with Zika?

The bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito (in the Americas, the species responsible are Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus) is the most frequently recognized way that people become infected with Zika virus. A man or a woman with Zika can pass the virus sexually to their sex partners. A pregnant woman can pass Zika to her fetus during pregnancy or around the time of birth. Also, there is evidence suggesting that any heavily infected body fluid could be a source of infection for someone else. Individuals who either live in or travel to places where Zika transmission is common should protect themselves by preventing mosquito bites and sexual transmission of Zika and be mindful of handwashing and other standard social distancing techniques if they come in contact with someone who is sick from Zika virus.

If someone gets infected with Zika virus do they get sick right away?

No, and not everyone will develop symptoms, some people never get sick. We believe that most people who get infected (about 80%) never manifest any symptoms and don't even know they have the disease. Among those who do get sick, it's not clear how long it takes symptoms to appear, but it is likely to be a few days.

What happens if someone gets sick from the Zika Virus?

Most people who get sick usually only suffer a mild illness that lasts about a week. The most common symptoms of Zika virus disease are fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes. Often people also suffer from muscle pain and headache. Symptoms, can last for several days to a week. A few people (about 1%) can get Guillain-Barré Syndrome - this is an autoimmune problem that can cause paralysis (see http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/gbs/detail_gbs.htm). Even more rare are severe problems to an eye (uveitis), inflammation of the brain or spinal cord.

What happens if a woman who is pregnant gets infected with the Zika Virus?

The pregnant woman may or may not have symptoms of Zika virus infection, but getting infected during pregnancy can cause serious birth defects such as microcephaly (http://who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/microcephaly/en/) and other severe brain defects to her fetus.

Do people become immune to Zika after they have been infected?

Once someone has been infected with Zika, it's very likely they'll be protected from future infections.
Is there a risk to babies from future pregnancies if a woman has recovered from Zika virus?
There is no evidence that past Zika infection poses an increased risk of birth defects in future pregnancies.

Should pregnant women travel to areas where Zika has been confirmed?

No. Pregnant women should not travel to any area with Zika virus because doing so puts their fetus at risk for developing microcephaly and other severe fetal brain defects. Also, men and women trying to get pregnant should talk to a travel medicine doctor before traveling. If they are planning to delay pregnancy they must use the most effective method of birth control to minimize the risk of being pregnant at the same time that they are carrying Zika virus in their blood. Anyone traveling to areas with active Zika virus transmission should be diligent about preventing mosquito bites during travel and for 8 weeks after they return to the USA. Also, all travelers should take appropriate precautions to avoid the sexual transmission of Zika.

What should pregnant women who have recently traveled to an area with Zika do?

Pregnant women should see a doctor if they have traveled to an area with Zika transmission even if they don't have any symptoms. Pregnant women who do have Zika symptoms during their trip or within 2 weeks after traveling must speak to their doctors. All pregnant women should protect themselves by avoiding travel to an area with Zika, preventing mosquito bites, and following recommended precautions against getting Zika through sex.

If I am traveling outside the United States, should I be concerned about Zika?

Travelers who go to places with Zika can be infected with Zika, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control have all issued travel notices for travelers.
CDC Travel Advisory for Zika:
WHO Travel Advisory for Zika:
ECDC Travel Advisory for Zika:

If I am traveling outside the United States, can I take a vaccine?

Currently, there is no licensed, tested, or approved vaccine against Zika.

If I am traveling outside the United States what can I do to prevent infection with Zika virus?

Protecting yourself from mosquito bites is one of the most important ways to prevent Zika virus infection. You should wear clothes (preferably light-colored) that cover as much of the body as possible; using physical barriers such as window screens or closing doors and windows; sleeping under mosquito nets; and using insect repellent containing picaridin, DEET, or IR3535. Make sure that you help any young children, the sick, or elderly who are traveling with you, protect themselves from mosquito bites. If you are going to areas with very heavy mosquito populations, consider applying permethrin to your clothing prior to travel.
People living in affected areas should take the basic precautions described above to protect themselves from mosquito bites. It is important to help reduce the mosquito population by covering, emptying or cleaning potential mosquito breeding sites in and around houses. These include buckets, drums, pots, gutters, and used tires. Communities should support local government efforts to reduce mosquitos. Consider adding larvicides and/or insecticides to protect from mosquitos in your home and business.
Reduce your risk of sexual transmission and potential pregnancy complications related to Zika virus infection by practicing safer sex (including using condoms) or abstain from sexual activity throughout the pregnancy. People returning from areas where there is local transmission of Zika virus should adopt safer sexual practices or abstain from sex for at least 8 weeks after their return, even if they don't have symptoms. If men experience Zika virus symptoms they should adopt safer sexual practices or consider abstinence for at least 6 months. Couples planning a pregnancy should wait at least 8 weeks before trying to conceive if no symptoms of Zika virus infection appear, or 6 months if one or both members of the couple are symptomatic.

How is Zika diagnosed?

To diagnose Zika, we need to know where you have been and which symptoms you have. If your symptoms and travel/life history fits with Zika, we collect blood, urine, semen, saliva, or other body fluids to test for Zika and other viruses that can cause similar symptoms.

Can someone who returned from a country or U.S. territory with Zika get tested for the virus?

Zika virus testing is performed at the CDC and some state and territorial health departments. There is one commercially approved test that can also be ordered.

How is Zika virus infection treated?

Zika virus disease is usually mild and requires no specific treatment. People sick with Zika virus should get plenty of rest, drink enough fluids, and treat pain and fever with common medicines. If symptoms worsen, they should see their doctor and get appropriate medical care and advice.