The mosquito-borne Zika virus has reached the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced. Common in Africa, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and the Americas, this virus may lead to birth defects and neurological issues.

Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services (HCPHES) received confirmation from the CDC that the Zika virus has been confirmed in one traveler who just returned from Latin America. The patient, who is residing in Houston, developed common symptoms of the virus such as fever, rashes, and joint pain.

Much like Dengue virus, Zika virus is also carried by the same vector – the aedes mosquitos. There are cases wherein the virus causes only mild symptoms that some people were not even aware they are infected. Most patients recovered fully, but infection of a pregnant woman can have detrimental effects to the unborn child.

"Prevention is key to reducing the risk of Zika virus infection," Dr. Umair A. Shah, executive director of HCPHES said (PDF).

"Zika virus infections occur throughout the world. We encourage individuals traveling to areas where the virus has been identified to protect themselves against mosquito bites, and to contact their health care provider immediately if they develop Zika virus-like symptoms," Shah added.

Birth Defects And Neurological Issues

The CDC is aware of reports pertaining to the increased numbers of babies born with a neurological defect called microcephaly in Brazil. This is the condition wherein the newborn's head is smaller than the expected size.

Health officials are speculating the link between the Zika virus outbreak and the increasing numbers of babies born with birth defects. Microcephaly (PDF) may be caused by a variety of factors, including infection a mother during pregnancy, genetic deformity and exposure to toxic chemicals.

In October 2015, the health department of Brazil received reports of increasing number of babies born with microcephaly, more than what they expect to see each year. Moreover, some of the babies who have microcephaly also tested positive for Zika virus.

Brazil reported its first outbreak of Zika virus in May 2015 and since then, the virus has spread not only in Brazil, but to other Latin American countries. However, the link between the two was not established yet and an ongoing investigation is yet to be concluded.

The disease was first seen in the Americas less than two years ago and has spread quickly across South and Central America. An estimated 440,000 to 1.3 million people have been infected by the virus. More than 2,700 babies in Brazil were born with microcephaly in 2015, which is way higher than the 147 cases recorded in 2014.

Signs And Symptoms Of Zika Virus

Zika virus may spread to people through mosquito bites and has signs and symptoms like fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis. Usually, the illness is just mild, with the symptoms lasting from several days to one week.

Though the disease is unlikely to cause hospitalizations, it may cause birth defects to the unborn child of pregnant mothers. At present, there is still no vaccine to protect people from the virus and since it's relatively new, no medicine has been discovered yet.

What Should Pregnant Mothers Do?

The CDC recommends that all people, especially pregnant women, who are traveling to Latin American countries like Brazil, should take precautions against mosquito bites. 

Pregnant mothers should be cautious when staying outdoors. They should refrain from going out without using insect repellents and wearing protective clothing particularly in mosquito-infested areas. This will help prevent infection not only from Zika virus, but as well as from other mosquito-borne illnesses like Dengue fever and Chikungunya.

Photo: John Ragai | Flickr

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