What is Zika virus and should you be worried about it?

Zika virus, as the video below explains, is relatively new to the western hemisphere and has been spreading quickly. The World Health Organization has gone so far as to declare a global emergency. However, at this point is is not clear exactly how dangerous it is or to whom.

If you are a woman of childbearing age, or are sexually active with women of childbearing age, you should exercise caution. One of the primary concerns of public health officials is birth defects which have been linked to Zika. However, the birth defect link is not certain yet and many still have doubts.

Update: the WHO now says that it has strong evidence for birth defects (and sexual transmission) for Zika.

Beyond potential birth defects however, there is little reason to worry. Most people infected with the virus will experience no symptoms with some experiencing rash and a fever.

Zika virus was first discovered in Uganda in 1947. It appeared in Brazil in 2015 and spread to more than a million people before the year was out.

The virus is transmitted by mosquitos and, because there is no cure, the only way to avoid Zika is to avoid mosquitos. This is difficult under the best of circumstances but a warmer and wetter year due to climate change and El Nino could produce a larger than normal mosquito population.

The virus can also be spread through sex and it is possible that other types of contact with bodily fluids could transmit the disease. Update: Traces of the Zika virus have been found in a man's semen two months after he contracted the virus.

Recent reports that Zika virus is linked to genetically modified (GM) mosquitos appear to have been fraudulent.  In fact,  GM mosquitos are being considered as a possible way to slow or stop the virus.

Currently health officials are hoping to have a Zika virus vaccine by the end of 2016. However, if the birth defect connection holds, the disease could have long lasting public health implications even if there are no more cases after 2017.

Update: As of February 12, the WHO reports that a vaccine for the Zika Virus is at least 18 months away.


WHO Information on Zika Virus

A FAQ on Zika from Vox.com

An overview from the NeuroLogica neuroscience blog.

A report on the origin of Zika Virus from the BBC