Zika Myths Mixing With Facts
4 Myths About the Zika Virus
You can get the Zika virus from the bites of infected mosquitoes, but not from casual contact, food, or water.
By Nancie George
Medically Reviewed by Chad Tewell, MD
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As the Zika virus continues to spread, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern.”
Currently, 46 countries or territories, mostly in Latin America and the Caribbean, have been affected by the outbreak. Pregnant women and women of childbearing age are at particular risk because the virus causes birth defects including microcephaly, an abnormally small head and brain size. For most people, though, the virus causes only a mild, flu-like illness.
In January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a travel alert advising pregnant women to delay travel to Zika-active areas — and that list of areas continues to grow. As investigators continue to study how the virus is transmitted, myths surrounding the virus abound. Here, we’ve rounded up some of the most common myths and facts about the Zika virus.
Myth 1: You Can Catch the Zika Virus From Water
The virus is spread through the bites of infectedAedes aegyptimosquitoes and can also be transmitted sexually, through blood transfusions, and through laboratory exposure — but not via water, says Oluwatosin Goje, MD, an ob/gyn and infectious disease specialist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
The CDC has cited evidence of sexual transmission in 10 cases and has published interim guidelines to prevent such transmission.
The guidelines recommend that “Men who have traveled to or reside in an area with active Zika virus transmission and their pregnant sex partners should consistently and correctly use condoms during sex (i.e., vaginal intercourse, anal intercourse, or fellatio) or abstain from sex for the duration of the pregnancy.”
Men with nonpregnant sexual partners who've been in Zika-infected areas and want to reduce risk of transmission should also use condoms during sex or abstain from sex, according to the CDC guidelines. The length of vigilance depends on whether a man was actually infected, if he had symptoms similar to those of Zika, and if he lived in the area. As of now, the CDC says "the duration of persistence of infectious Zika virus in semen remains unknown."
Myth 2: The Zika Virus Won't Harm Your Baby
Researchers agree that the virus causes microcephaly and other birth defects. “The incidence of microcephaly among fetuses with congenital Zika infection is unknown,” says Dr. Goje. “We know Brazil witnessed a 20-fold increase in microcephaly cases. And Guillain-Barré syndrome has been reported in patients following suspected Zika virus infection, but the relationship to Zika virus is not known.” More research will need to be done on both suspected links, she adds.
RELATED: 10 Essential Facts About the Zika Virus
Because of the microcephaly risk, the CDC recommends that pregnant women in any trimester, as well as women trying to become pregnant, should avoid travel to Zika hot spots. If you must travel to an area where Zika is endemic, be sure to talk to your doctor first, recommends Goje.
Myth 3: There’s No Way to Prevent Zika
It’s possible to lower your risk of Zika infection by staying away from mosquitoes, clearing out their breeding grounds, and using condoms.
“The best way to avoid mosquito bites is to use a repellent containing at least 20 percent DEET, picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus, or IR3535 when venturing outdoors — especially near dawn and dusk, when mosquitoes are most active,” says Jim Fredericks, PhD, chief entomologist and vice president of technical and regulatory affairs for the nonprofit National Pest Management Association in Fairfax, Virginia.
Goje gives other helpful Zika prevention tips, including:
- Primary prevention Reduce your exposure to mosquitoes, and protect infected people from mosquito exposure during the first week of illness, to prevent further spread.
- Watch out for stagnant water Eliminate all stagnant water or empty containers that can collect water around houses to control mosquito breeding.
- Cover up You should cover your entire body if you’re in mosquito breeding sites, use EPA-approved insect repellants like DEET when outdoors, and consider spraying your clothing — but not your skin — with permethrin.
Myth 4: Treatment Can Cure the Zika Virus
There’s no treatment against the virus, says Goje. Supportive therapy for people infected with Zika includes rest, fluid hydration, and medications such as Tylenol, she adds. Currently, there’s no vaccine to protect against the Zika virus, but the urgency of the outbreak has expedited efforts to study and create a vaccine.
Much About the Virus Remains Unknown
Researchers are unsure about many specifics surrounding the Zika virus, and it’s not known whether some people might be immune to it, but studies are underway to determine that, says Goje.
The Zika virus outbreak is a fluid situation, and the CDC, the WHO, and international public health communities will continue to update the public as news emerges.
Video: Zika Virus: What We Know (And What We Don't)
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