With the Rio Olympics starting Friday in the country where over 165,000 suspected Zika cases have been reported this year, and local mosquito-borne Zika virus transmission reported in Florida, it’s natural to be concerned about the infectious disease that’s been dominating headlines.
While some information about the outbreak is available— such as transmission, symptoms and containment efforts— questions about the virus remain.
Should I be concerned?
According to the experts, the answer depends on where you live and if you are pregnant or considering becoming pregnant.
Certain areas of the country, specifically Florida and the Gulf Coast, particularly Louisiana and Texas, have a high concentration of the Aedes aegypti mosquito and may be more at risk of a Zika virus outbreak.
“Zika is far more contained than people realize,” Dr. Peter Hotez , Director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, told FoxNews.com. “Areas of concern are cities like Brownsville, Texas, Corpus Christi, Houston, New Orleans, Tampa, Miami.”
While there is an outbreak in a very circumscribed area of Miami, Hotez believes the whole city to be at risk, as individuals with Zika in their bloodstream are traveling to other parts of the city.
“If you’re living in a city at risk and are pregnant, you need to give a lot of thought to how you’re going to alter your behavior— maximizing your time indoors, talking with your obstetrician about how to apply DEET or an alternative insect repellent,” Hotez, who is also Founding Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, said.
While there are 1,825 Zika cases in the continental U.S., compared with other regions— Puerto Rico has 5,582— it’s a drop in the bucket, said Dr. Federico Laham, medical director for pediatric infectious disease at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando.
“If you are not pregnant or not an adult planning to have a partner who is pregnant, I don’t think [there’s] any reason for concern or any need for testing,” Laham told FoxNews.com.“Zika is believed to be an uncomplicated infection with self-limited symptoms that don’t have any long-lasting complications.”
How active are Zika-carrying mosquitoes?
The Aedes aegypti mosquito is an urbanized mosquito that has adapted to human habitats, especially urbanized areas where there’s crowding, which could be a suburb or any area with a certain density of people.
“Aedes aegypti tends to be a day biter, but once it’s inside houses, it could bite anytime,” Hotez said, adding that West Nile virus is still a concern, as it’s prevalent in the same places that have Zika.
In their lifespan, mosquitoes that carry Zika generally travel less than 150 meters (164 yards), according to the CDC, though the World Health Organization reports an average flight range of 400 meters (437 yards). The average lifespan of an Aedes aegpyti mosquito is two weeks.
The Aedes albopictus mosquito can also carry Zika, but it is not as efficient in spreading the virus as Aedes egypti, because it also feeds on birds and other mammals, interrupting transmission.
Should women at all stages of pregnancy be worried about microcephaly?
Yes and no. While the effects of Zika on pregnant women and their unborn babies are still unknown, the most concerning stage is early pregnancy.
“Because of its similarity to other infections and findings about microcephaly, many of these things take a long time to develop and may affect the fetus early in pregnancy,” Laham said. “A mom can pass the infection to the baby at the time of birth if she gets the infection later on, but we doubt that will result in any kind of congenital problems like microcephaly. It takes time to develop— it’s not something that happens in a few days or weeks.”
Studies have shown evidence of Zika in amniotic fluid, placenta and fetal brain tissue.
Hotez agreed that the effects on unborn fetuses and young children are still unknown, but said it’s too early to know determine there are any neurological effects.
Is everyone who gets Zika symptomatic?
No. Cautioning that there is still a steep learning curve for Zika, Hotez said that research suggests 80 percent of infected people do not show symptoms, but he believes the percentage to be higher.
In the recent cases of local transmission in Florida, four out of the five patients did not have symptoms.
That being said, one of Hotez’s biggest worries is Zika cases that aren’t being reported.
“My big nightmare scenario is we’re missing Zika transmission in certain cities and as a consequence we could start seeing microcephaly cases seven, eight, nine months from now,” he said. “That would be really tragic.”
Can you be ‘cured’ of Zika?
Yes, once you’re infected you’re immune to the virus.
“The vast majority of [infected] people will develop antibodies and then you’re fine,” Hotez said. “You’re basically self-cured and immune.”
The lack of funding by Congress— right before the peak infection period of July-September— means the disease will be fought on the local level, leading to Hotez’s worry that cases aren’t being transmitted.
“[Congress] just left without making a decision, which was really shocking,” he said.
Will Zika stay in my system forever?
No. Most infected individuals will have Zika in their system for a period of 2 to 3 weeks and in the bloodstream for about a week.
However, if pregnant woman is infected, there is the possibility that the virus could go into the fetus, then back into the mother, he added.
The CDC advises non-pregnant couples use condoms or abstain from sex for at least eight weeks after onset if a female partner is diagnosed with or experiences symptoms of Zika and for at least six months if a male partner is diagnosed or has symptoms.
Will kissing spread Zika?
Probably not. In June, a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine detailed a case of Zika potentially being transmitted through oral sex, bringing to question whether the virus could be spread by other biological fluids, such as saliva during kissing.
“I don’t think [transmission through kissing] has been well-established at all,” Hotez said. “We want to keep our eyes on the prize— the overwhelming mode of transmission is still fro mosquito bites.”
Does Zika cause paralysis?
Still unclear. Zika has been linked to Guillen-Barre, a neurological illness that mostly lasts a few weeks and causes muscle weakness, and, sometimes, paralysis. According to the CDC, researchers do not fully understand what causes the syndrome, but most patients report a bacterial or viral infection before they have symptoms.
Guillen-Barre is rare and is found in 1 in 1,000 Zika patients, with some estimating 1 in 500 cases, Hotez said.
“It’s a very, very unusual complication and that shouldn’t really force any kind of fear,” Laham said. “Literally any virus like flu or the cold can cause all types of crazy infections.”
Guillen-Barre is usually an immune response to a virus.
“In the case of Zika, it happens so early on in the course of illness many of us are thinking Zika may cause Guillen-Barre by some kind of direct invasion of nervous tissue,” Hotez said.