Abundant rain and an early spring have meant the early arrival of Arkansas’ mosquito season. With the pesky mosquito comes an increase in the risk of the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne virus that can cause birth defects. Here’s what you need to do to prevent it.

Although it is spreading northward from South and Central America, Mexico and the islands of the Caribbean, experts do not know if Zika will migrate into all parts of the United States. Last summer there were isolated outbreaks of Zika infection in the southernmost parts of the country including Florida and Texas.

Zika virus spreads by:

  • Mosquito bites from infected mosquitos.
  • Through sexual contact (vaginal, anal or oral) with an infected person. Zika can live in semen longer than any other bodily fluid.
  • A pregnant mother to her baby during pregnancy or at birth.
  • An infected person – during the first week of Zika infection, when the virus in circulating in the person’s blood stream, the virus can pass to a mosquito when it bites the infected person and the virus spreads when the mosquito bites another person.
  • A person who has no symptoms. Many people infected with Zika won’t have symptoms or only mild symptoms and don’t know they’ve been infected. However, contact with an infected person’s blood (during the first week after infection) or a man’s semen (for up to six months) can spread Zika.
  • Blood transfusion – although there has been no contamination of the U.S. blood supply, contamination has been documented in other countries. The government recommends testing of all blood before use. Adequate testing for Zika in donated blood has been available since June 2016.

Zika virus cannot be spread through the air.

Who’s at risk?

You are at risk of Zika infection if you:

  • Live in or travel to a Zika-virus infected area and have not already been infected with the virus.
  • Had sex without a condom with someone who lived in or traveled to an area of known risk.
  • Have been exposed to situations of known risk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says “exposure” means a person has lived in, traveled to, or had sex without a condom with someone who lived in or traveled to an area of known risk. Currently, the CDC has issued a Zika travel notice to Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean islands, parts of Asia and Africa, and the Pacific Islands of Fiji, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Tonga. Although there is no travel notice, the risk of Zika exists in Texas, Florida, most of Africa, India, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. The CDC has an interactive map that updates current travel notices and areas at-risk for Zika “Active transmission” means mosquitoes in the area are infected with Zika virus and it is spreading to humans.
  • Pregnant women and their unborn babies are especially vulnerable to the infection and should take every precaution to avoid mosquito bites. Pregnant women should not travel to areas with a known risk of Zika.

Pregnant women should be tested during the first and second trimesters of pregnancy if there has been risk of exposure. Zika infection during pregnancy can cause a serious brain defect called microcephaly, or incomplete brain development. It can cause other problems for pregnant women and babies infected with Zika during the birth process. These symptoms may not be present at birth but can develop later. Not every baby born of an infected mother will have birth defects.

In terms of future pregnancies, Zika virus infection in a woman who is not pregnant does not pose a risk for birth defects in future pregnancies, after the virus has cleared from her blood. Once a person is infected with Zika virus, he or she generally has protection from a future Zika infection.

It is safe to breastfeed. There is no evidence of babies getting the virus through breastfeeding.

If you have questions about a possible Zika virus infection or diagnosis during pregnancy or risk to the baby, contact MotherToBaby at 1-866-626-6847, weekdays from 8 A.M.-5 P.M. It is staffed by experts who can answer questions in English or Spanish. The service is free and confidential.

Prevention

There is currently no vaccine or medication to prevent Zika. To avoid mosquito bites, follow these tips from the CDC:

  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants.
  • Stay in a home or building with window and door screens. If screens are not available or you are sleeping outside, sleep under a mosquito net.
  • Only use insect repellents that are EPA-registered. They have been evaluated for safety and effectiveness.
  • Do not use repellent on babies younger than two months of age. Spray the repellent on your hands and then apply to a child’s face. Do not apply to cut or irritated skin.
  • Reapply repellent every few hours. Do not spray repellent on the skin under clothing.
  • If you’re also using sunscreen, apply it first; then apply repellent.
  • If traveling with a child, cover the crib, stroller and baby carrier with mosquito netting.
  • Mosquitoes that spread Zika bite during the day and night. They are also the same type of mosquitoes that spread dengue and chikungunya viruses.
  • At least once a week, empty and clean, turn over, cover or throw out any items that hold water such as vases, flowerpot saucers, planters, birdbaths, buckets, tires and wading pools. Mosquitoes lay eggs near water and like to rest in dark, humid areas.
  • Keep mosquitoes outside your home with window and door screens. Keep screens shut at all times and use air conditioning when possible.
  • If you are caring for someone with Zika, protect yourself from exposure to his or her blood or other bodily fluids. Do not touch these fluids with exposed skin. Wash hands with soap and water immediately after providing care. Remove all clothing and wash immediately if it’s soiled with bodily fluids. Clean the person’s area daily and immediately disinfect any surface that has bodily fluids on it.
  • Avoid sexual contact, or use a condom, with an infected person or anyone who has recently traveled to the affected areas under the CDC’s travel alert. Women whose partners have lived in or traveled to an area with a risk of Zika should either not have sex or use condoms every time during pregnancy, from start to finish.
  • The CDC recommends special precautions for women who are pregnant (any trimester) and women who are trying to become pregnant. They should postpone travel to any area where there’s active transmission of Zika virus. They should also strictly follow the steps to prevent mosquito bites.
  • Before you travel, check the CDC’s Traveler’s Health site for the most updated information here.

Symptoms and treatment

Only about 20 percent of people infected with Zika will get sick and have symptoms. Many people never know they’ve been infected. A blood or urine test can confirm Zika.

See your health care provider if you develop these common symptoms of Zika virus AND you live in or have recently traveled to an area with risk of Zika:

  • Fever
  • Rash
  • Joint pain
  • Muscle pain
  • Red, itchy eyes (conjunctivitis)
  • Headache

Symptoms begin two to seven days after being bitten by an infected mosquito. Symptoms are usually mild and last for a few days to a week. Severe cases or deaths are rare. Zika virus usually remains in the blood of an infected person for about a week. Once a person has been infected with Zika (and the infection has cleared from the blood), he or she is most likely protected from future infections.

Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) is a nervous system illness that damages a person’s immune system and nerve cells, causing muscle weakness and rarely paralysis. In several countries with Zika outbreaks, there has been an increase in the number of people with GBS. Current research suggests that GBS is strongly associated with Zika; however, only a small proportion of people with recent Zika virus infection also get GBS.

To treat symptoms:

  • Get plenty of rest
  • Drink fluids to prevent dehydration
  • To reduce fever and pain, take acetaminophen
  • Do not take aspirin or other NSAIDS such as ibuprofen or naproxen (Aleve, Motrin or Advil)

Zika is not a new virus. Outbreaks have been reported previously in tropical Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands since the 1940s. Scientists are still learning about Zika virus transmission and long-term effects on humans. There are several other viruses that can be transmitted via mosquitoes such as West Nile virus or Dengue fever. Preventing mosquito bites is the best and only prevention against these viruses.

Photo courtesy CDC/James Gathany