Is the Zika virus new?

No. Zika virus infection outbreaks have previously been reported in Africa, Asia, and the Oceanic Pacific regions. 2015 was the first time the infection appeared in South and Central America, including Mexico.

How is the Zika virus infection spread?

The Zika virus spreads mainly through infected mosquito bites. Once a person is infected, the Zika virus can be found in their blood for a few days, or longer in some people. The virus can then be passed on when another mosquito bites the infected person.

Less commonly, the Zika virus can be spread through other means, such as sexual contact with an infected person, or through contaminated blood sources such as blood transfusions and laboratory exposure.

What are the symptoms of the Zika virus infection?

Only 20% of those infected with the Zika virus become ill, meaning that most infected people do not know that they are ill. It is thought that it takes somewhere between a few days to a week for the symptoms to appear once a person is infected.

Common symptoms of Zika virus infection include fever, rash, red eyes, joint and muscle pain, and headache. Most of the time, the illness is mild and lasts only a few days to a week. Death from Zika virus infection is rare.

The typical symptoms of the Zika virus infection can also be due to a number of other causes.

If most people only get mild symptoms, why is there such alarm and worry about the Zika virus?

There have been cases of people who were infected with the Zika virus later developing a rare disorder called Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), an auto-immune disease that can cause muscle weakness and paralysis. It is not known if the Zika infection is a cause of GBS.

The Zika virus can also cause microcephaly in babies born to women who were infected while pregnant. Microcephaly is a rare birth defect in which the baby's head is smaller than expected, which can be related to problems with brain development. Other possible negative pregnancy outcomes include hearing problems and impaired growth in the newborn.

How is Zika virus disease treated?

Currently there is no vaccine to prevent the infection and no medication for treating Zika infections. However, symptoms of the infection may be treated. For example, your doctor may recommend taking acetaminophen for fever and pain, as well as rest and fluids to help you recover. Avoid using ASA (Aspirin® and other brands) and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, including ibuprofen) until dengue can be ruled out. Dengue is an infection that causes similar symptoms and is also spread through mosquitos.

What should I do?

See your health care provider if you've recently travelled to areas where the Zika virus outbreak is and you develop the symptoms described above.

If you are travelling to areas where a Zika virus outbreak is happening, remember that the virus is most often transmitted by mosquito bites. Protect yourself by using insect repellents (reapplying as per the directions) and bed nets, and wearing protective clothing such as long-sleeved, loose-fitting, and tucked-in shirts with long pants and a hat.

Pregnant women and those considering becoming pregnant are encouraged to consider postponing travel to areas where there is a Zika virus infection outbreak. They should also discuss with their health care professionals any precaution they should take if their sexual partner lived in or travelled to areas affected by the Zika virus.