You can’t turn on a TV or go online right now without seeing the latest update on Zika virus. And, now that the World Health Organization has convened an emergency committee to discuss the “explosive” spread of the disease, people are, well, freaking out.
One big question remains for many: Can the Zika virus be passed on like the flu?
Nope, board-certified infectious disease specialist Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, tells Yahoo Health. “Zika virus is not contagious person to person in any kind of normal sense,” he says.
Zika is a mosquito-borne disease, meaning it’s transferred to people from mosquito bites. “If a mosquito bites someone with Zika, it takes up the virus,” explains Adalja. “It then goes on and bites someone else. As part of the process, it then transfers the virus to that person.”
Zika was previously thought of as a relatively harmless infectious disease, Adalja says, especially since more than 80 percent of people who contract Zika have no symptoms at all (the other 20 percent may experience fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis).
Zika first made international headlines earlier this month when it was linked to severe brain damage in newborns after nearly 4,000 babies were born in Brazil in the past year with unusually small heads, an incurable condition known as microcephaly.
Zika is spreading rapidly throughout the Americas and the Caribbean, and is expected to reach the U.S. by late spring or early summer. The World Health Organization recently predicted that the virus will spread to all but two countries in South, Central, and North America (including the U.S.), and officials in Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador Ecuador, and Jamaica are urging women to hold off on having children.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also urging pregnant women and those who are trying to become pregnant to avoid traveling to any regions affected by the virus.
While Zika is a mosquito-borne illness, research suggests that it may be transferred through sexual contact (via semen) as well. “There seems to be one case out there in which a man was infected with Zika while traveling and then gave it to his wife,” Adalja says. “But that seems to be the only case out there, and it’s not necessarily the main mechanism of how people are getting infected with this virus.”
Adalja stresses that pregnant women are really the ones who should be concerned about Zika virus. “Other people shouldn’t be panicking about it,” he says. “It’s a benign illness for the majority of people.”