From time to time, Health News You Can Use addresses public health issues rather than the results of studies. This is one of those times.

So, just what is Zika Virus Disease?

It is usually a mild viral infection usually contracted through  the bite from an infected mosquito, or sexually through the semen of a Zika infected partner.1  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the World Health Organization (WHO), Zika virus was first identified in 1947 in the Zika forest in Uganda, hence the name. It wasn’t until 1952 that the first case of a person infected with the virus was diagnosed.

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Until recently, Zika infections were confined to Asia, Africa, and the Pacific Islands. In May of last year, the first case of Zika was diagnosed in Brazil, and on February 1st of this year, the World Health Organization declared Zika Virus Disease an international public health concern.

In 75-80% of cases, Zika Virus Disease does not cause symptoms, which means most people don’t know they are sick. Even when symptoms do occur, they are often so mild or so similar to other common viral infections, that they go unreported. In the 20-25% of people who do develop symptoms, they last between 2-7 days and include:


  • Mild fever
  • Muscle or joint pain
  • General malaise/illness
  • Skin rash


Conjunctivitis – inflammation of the clear tissue that covers the eye.


According to the WHO, it does not appear that Zika infections are fatal. However, in areas where Zika has been diagnosed, there has been an increase in the number of people diagnosed with Gillain-Barre` Syndrome (GBS).  Guillain-Barre` is an auto-immune disease, a disease in which something (maybe the virus) triggers the immune system to attack the person’s body. In GBS, the immune system attacks the nerves in the extremities, usually in the hands and feet first, progressing up the legs and arms leading to weakness and paralysis. Recovery from this can take as little as a few weeks to as much as three years or more. 2

The bigger concern is for pregnant women. A Zika infection during pregnancy can spread from the mother to her fetus causing microcephaly. Microcephaly, or a smaller than normal head, happens when the brain does not develop properly.  

Microcephaly is associated with:

  • Seizures
  • Developmental delays (speech, sitting, standing, walking, etc.)
  • Difficulty learning
  • Difficulty eating or swallowing
  • Hearing impairment
  • Vision problems3

The CDC recommends the following actions to decrease the risk of contracting Zika Viral Disease:

  • When traveling to countries where Zika Virus has been identified:
    • Protect yourself from mosquito bites

Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants.

Stay in places with air conditioning or that use window and
door screens to keep mosquitoes outside.

Sleep under a mosquito bed net if you are overseas or outside and are not able to protect yourself from mosquito bites.

Use Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellents. When used as directed, EPA-registered insect repellents are proven safe and effective, even for pregnant and breast-feeding women.

Always follow the product label instructions.
Reapply insect repellent as directed.
Do not spray repellent on the skin under clothing.
If you are also using sunscreen, apply sunscreen before applying insect repellent.

  • To prevent sexual transmission from an infected male partner – practice safer sex or abstain from sex. Unfortunately, it is not known yet, how long Zika Virus remains in semen. All that is known is that it is present in semen for longer than it is in the blood, which is about a week.

The take away from all of this is

avoid traveling to areas where Zika has been identified especially if you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant.

If you cannot avoid travel, then follow the precautions above to minimize mosquito exposure.

For more information:


CDC - Zika Virus

WHO Zika Virus – FAQ’s

National Institutes of Health – Guillain-Barre Syndrome


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2016). Questions and answers: Zika virus infection and pregnancy. Available from
  2. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (2015). Guillain-Barre Syndrome fact sheet.  Available from
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevetion (2016). Facts about mircocephaly.  Available at

Joanna Hayden, PhD, CHES is the principal health education specialist at Associates for Health Education and Behavior in Sparta, a practice focused on improving health through education. For more information please see  To contact Dr. Hayden, email her at