It’s hard to believe that one little mosquito bite is capable of causing so much damage. But that’s exactly what we’re seeing with the rise of Zika virus — and the situation is evolving quickly. As researchers race to figure out how this mosquito-borne virus impacts us, one thing is clear: avoiding Zika virus should be on everyone’s priority list.
In April 2016, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) researchers confirmed what health officials feared — Zika virus is responsible for microcephaly, a birth defect that causes a baby’s head to be smaller than expected. Babies with microcephaly often have smaller brains prone to abnormal development. (1)
Zika virus’ damage doesn’t end there, either. New research presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 68th Annual Meeting links the virus to a neurological condition similar to multiple sclerosis. Researchers believe Zika could trigger an autoimmune disease called acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM). In ADEM, a person suffers from an attack of swelling of the brain and spinal cord. This condition attacks the brain’s myelin similarly to MS. (2)
According to the CDC, the Brazil Ministry of Health is also reporting a higher number of Zika-infected people experiencing Guillain-Barré syndrome, a nervous system disease that causes muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis.
What Is Zika Virus? 5 Fast Facts
While it’s clear we’ve still got a lot to learn about Zika virus, here’s what we do know:
- Zika virus is transmitted by the Aedes species mosquito (A. aegypti and A. albopictus). These same mosquitoes spread dengue fever and chikungunya. These mosquitoes are aggresssive daytime biters and also bite at night. Only female mosquitoes bite.
- While these mosquitoes are found in some parts of the U.S., officials say as of mid-April 2016, no one has contracted Zika virus in the U.S. Americans have contracted Zika while traveling out of the country, though. And by mid-April, about 460 people contracted the disease locally in the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico, American Samoa and the Virgin Islands (3).
- Aedes aegypti has spread most cases of Zika. This mosquito is common in Florida, Hawaii and along the Gulf Coast. It’s been found as far north as Washington, DC, though, when it’s particularly hot. (4)
- In May 2015, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) issued an alert regarding the first confirmed Zika virus infection in Brazil. On February 1, 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Zika virus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). (5)
- There’s no vaccine or treatment for Zika virus, although most people infected won’t experience any symptoms or long-term health problems. It’s not clear what role antiviral herbs could play in easing symptoms of Zika virus in people sickened by the virus, although certain herbs have been used for centuries to deal with other types of viruses.
Symptoms of Zika Virus
The symptoms and side effects of Zika virus drastically vary. Most people infected with Zika virus are symptom-free and never know they were infected.
Most common Zika virus symptoms last 2 to 7 days and include:
- Red eyes
- Joint pain
Headaches and muscle pain are other symptoms, although they are reported less frequently. (6)
How Does Zika Virus Spread?
- Mosquito Bites
Most common form of transmission: The bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito (A. aegypti and A. albopictus).
These are the same mosquitoes that spread dengue and chikungunya viruses.
- From Mother to Child
A pregnant woman can pass Zika virus to her fetus during pregnancy. A mother already infected with Zika virus near the time of delivery can pass the virus to her newborn around the time of birth. As of April 2016, there have been no reports of virus transmission through breastfeeding.
- Through Sexual Contact
A man can transmit Zika virus to his sex partners (male or female) through semen. Zika virus can be spread when the man has symptoms, before symptoms start and after symptoms resolve. A 2016 New England Journal of Medicine study found Zika can be transmitted through anal sex, too. (7)
- Through Blood Transfusion
Multiple reports of blood transfusion transmission are being investigated in Brazil. During the French Polynesian outbreak of 2013, 2.8 percent of blood donors tested positive for Zika virus.
Avoiding Zika Virus
Travel Warnings: As of mid-April 2016, the CDC urged pregnant woman to avoid travel to Zika-prone locations, if possible. For now, that’s one of the top ways to avoid Zika virus. Check the CDC for updated travel advisories.
CDC-Approved Insect Repellents: Avoiding Zika virus is a challenge, but there are a number of proven ways to keep mosquito bites at bay by using repellents. The CDC says repellents should contain Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellents like: DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, or para-menthane-diol. Be sure to read labels and strictly follow directions. If you’re using sunscreen, be sure to apply the insect repellent after the sunscreen. (8, 9)
Essential oil uses and benefits sometimes include mosquito bite prevention. For instance, citronella oil is sometimes used for mosquito control. Consumer Reports testing, however, found citronella doesn’t always effectively repel mosquitoes. Recent Consumer Reports testing found DEET-free Repel Lemon Eucalyptus repelled Aedes mosquitoes for 7 hours, though. (10) (Don’t use lemon eucalyptus products on children younger than 3 and always follow label instructions.) Those same Consumer Reports tests found that some of the most effective products against Aedes mosquitoes were Sawyer Picaridin and Natrapel 8 Hour, which each contain 20 percent picaridin. Picaridin is a synthesized ingredient made to resemble the natural compound piperine, which is found in the group of plants that are used to produce black pepper. Picaridin has been widely used as an insect repellent in Europe and Australia, but has only been available in the United States since 2005. (11)
Important Note to Protect Children:
- Do not use insect repellent on babies younger than 2 months old.
- Do not use products containing oil of lemon eucalyptus or para-menthanediol on children younger than 3 years old.
- Dress your child in clothing that covers arms and legs.
- Cover crib, stroller and baby carrier with mosquito netting.
- Do not apply insect repellent onto a child’s hands, eyes, mouth, and cut or irritated skin.
- Adults: Spray insect repellent onto your hands and then apply to a child’s face. (12)
The Zika-Fighting Dress Code: Wear light-colored, long-sleeved shirts and long pants to reduce your risk of a bite.
Potential for Papaya? Papaya leaves have been used to treat dengue fever, a virus-borne disease transmitted by the same mosquitoes that infect people with Zika virus. One study looking at papaya’s power against dengue fever found mixing the plant’s leaves with water and giving to patients twice a day resulted in a decrease in viral activity after 5 days (13). It’s not clear if papaya leaves could aid in treating Zika virus, but it’s a possible topic for further research.
Final Thoughts on Avoiding Zika Virus
The Zika virus is capable of causing birth defects when a pregnant mother is infected. Researchers now believe the Zika virus is also implicated in an MS-like autoimmune disease. Researchers are scrambling to better understand this new health threat.
Avoiding Zika virus can be tricky, but the best way to avoid a bite from an infected mosquito is to avoid travel to Zika-prone areas. As of mid-April, no one has been bitten in the United States, although Zika-transmitting mosquitoes are common in Florida, Hawaii and the Gulf Coast.
Most people who are infected with Zika virus show no symptoms, although some do develop a rash, fever, sore joints and red eyes. One of the more serious side effects of Zika involves a birth defect that causes infants’ heads to be smaller than normal.
This serves as an unfortunate reminder that mosquitoes carry some serious diseases, including ones we need to better understand.
Read Next: Top 5 Essential Oils for Allergies
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