The World Health Organization has called an emergency meeting on Feb. 1 to discuss the Zika virus, which has recently broken out in Central and South America, cascading through 23 countries and territories. The virus is spread by mosquito bite and has been implicated in rising rates of Guillain-Barré syndrome and potentially linked to infant microcephaly.
WHO must evaluate, and quickly, whether the outbreak constitutes a "Public Health Emergency of International Concern," a technical demarcation that immediately puts in place international actions to stop the disease. In the meantime, a concerned public struggles to understand what Zika is and how it so quickly entered our consciousness.
Here's a primer:
The Zika virus has been around a long time.
According to the The Society for Science and the Public, it was discovered in the Zika Forest in Uganda in 1947. There were already reports and studies on the virus in 1954, when the Virus Research Institute of Nigeria studied three cases of Zika infection in jaundice patients.
If you weren't bitten by a mosquito, you don't have it.
As far as we know, Zika comes exclusively from mosquito bites and mother-to-infant transmission. The mosquitos that transmit it tend to breed near water-holding containers, like buckets and wells, but can procreate even in the cap of a water bottle. There have been some suspected transmissions between sexual partners, but these are not confirmed.
We don't know exactly how dangerous it is.
We know that Zika has been linked to Guillain-Barré Syndrome, which can causes severe muscle weakness, and even temporary paralysis. But the virus has been making news lately not just for infecting millions, but for being potentially linked to microcephaly, a birth defect in which the infant is born with an abnormally small head. The concern, then, is for the child's brain. You might expect that a small skull would cause pressure to build up around the brain, but it is actually the reverse: as the baby's brain develops, the skull and head expand around it, to make room for and protect the brain. An abnormally small head, then, usually means an abnormally small brain. This can lead to seizures, developmental delays, intellectual disabilities, hearing and vision problems, and more. For many families, it is a tragic and life-altering diagnosis.
It is reasonable, then, to prevent pregnancy in areas currently experiencing Zika outbreaks, especially since an expectant mother could carry the virus without knowing it. However, the virus has not been conclusively linked to the birth defect; rather, the Brazilian government noted that they had had an unusually steep increase in microcephaly at the same time as a severe Zika outbreak.
But according to Scientific American, WHO says that there is no definite causal link. While there have been 4,000 cases of the defect in Brazil, there have been only six infants who both carry the disease and were, through laboratory testing, proven to carry information from the virus. Even so, WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan says the link is "strongly suspected." In an abundance of caution, the government of El Salvador has encouraged women not to get pregnant until 2018. El Salvador has experienced more than 5,000 Zika cases in the last year.
We don't know how long the virus takes to incubate.
Incubation is the period of time between when the virus is transmitted (through an insect bite) to the host, and when symptoms present themselves. Understanding this is important, because once we know how long it takes for the virus to gain traction in the body, doctors can better diagnose patients. For example, if the incubation period is one week, and you have flu symptoms but haven't been to Brazil for six months, chances are that your trip is unrelated to your illness. However, if the incubation varies (say, can be up to six months), that window grows wider and wider. HIV, another RNA virus, famously has a 10-year incubation period. Most experts suspect that the incubation period for Zika is a few days.
Zika is primarily found in humid areas.
The virus spreads primarily in tropical and subtropical regions, though some mosquitos that may carry the disease can survive in cooler climates. Experts say the most at-risk regions in the U.S. are Florida and some regions of Texas.
If you get it, you will probably never know.
Eighty percent of people who get a Zika infection show no symptoms, and it passes through their system without the host ever knowing.
Zika fever looks a lot like the flu.
According to the CDC, the most common Zika symptoms are fever, rash, joint pain, and eye infections. Some people experience muscle pain or have headaches.
And you can treat it like the flu.
If you have traveled to an area where Zika is present, and you come down with flu symptoms, do not panic. Zika can be treated with regular fever reducers, pain medications, and the same R&R your mom recommended for the common cold. However, you may want to consider holding off on any plans for getting pregnant until your symptoms subside or you see your doctor.
Zika testing is not yet available to general practitioners.
If a doctor in the U.S. suspects that his or her patient has Zika, the doctor must send a specimen to the CDC for testing, as local laboratories do not have the proper testing for the disease. This process can take four to 14 days. While there is no reason to suspect an upcoming outbreak in the States, this could lower the ability of local doctors to make prompt diagnoses.
You will (almost definitely) not die of Zika.
Deaths from Zika are rare. If you catch Zika and are not pregnant, the only concern (other than transmission to others through mosquito bite) is the potential to develop Guillain-Barré Syndrome. Currently, Guillain-Barré affects 1 in 100,000 people in the United States. Although there is no cure, most people recover and live typical lives after the treatment for its acute onset.
There's no vaccine or cure for Zika.
The main job of the medical community, beyond treating those with Zika, will be to research its cure. However, financial incentives are low for major pharmaceutical companies. Perhaps the WHO's emergency meeting will shed light not only on the state of Zika, but on ways governments can work together to support the swift discovery of a vaccine.
The writer of this piece is a reporter, not a health professional. Nothing above should be taken as medical advice or diagnosis. See your doctor if you have questions or are concerned about symptoms.