Your essential guide to the Zika virus

You would have to have been living under a rock recently not to have heard about the Zika virus, especially regarding its potential links to problems in pregnancy. In February of this year the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the current outbreak as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern and the virus continues to make headlines both at home and overseas.

If you are worried about Zika or are due to travel abroad in the near future, here are the facts you need to know:

  • Zika has been around since the 1940s. It was first reported in Uganda but since 2007 has begun spreading through the Pacific regions and South America.
  • It is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is most active during mid-mornings and later in the afternoon.
  • Zika transmission is currently active in the following countries 
  • If you are infected with Zika, you don't always get symptoms. If you do become unwell, the symptoms are usually mild and appear within 14 days of being bitten. Typical symptoms include: a mild fever, a rash, red eyes, joint pains, and headache, lasting for approximately one week.
  • There is no treatment or vaccination as yet for the Zika virus.
  • There has been an increase in reported cases of microcephaly (a smaller than normal head circumference) in Brazil, coinciding with the recent Zika outbreak. Although a direct link between the two hasn't been scientifically proved, it is thought that the Zika virus is likely to be responsible for this birth abnormality.
  • There may also be an increased risk of central nervous system abnormalities in babies born to mothers infected with Zika.
  • The risks in pregnancy are thought to be greatest during the first few months after conception.
  • If you are pregnant or trying for a baby, the current advice is to avoid travelling to areas affected by the Zika virus.
  • If travel is unavoidable then strict mosquito bite avoidance is recommended during both the day and at night. Wearing loose-fitting, long-sleeved clothing is recommended. Insect repellents continuing 50% DEET offer protection for up to 12 hours and are safe to use if pregnant, breast-feeding and in children over two months old. Remember to put your suntan lotion on first and apply the repellent over the top.
  • If you are pregnant and have recently returned from a Zika area, then see your GP as soon as possible. You may need bloods tests and will be referred for an ultrasound scan to check on your baby's growth.
  • If you are trying for a baby it is best to wait for 28 days after returning from abroad.
  • There have also been cases of the Zika virus being passed on via sexual intercourse. If a male partner has travelled to a Zika hotspot then you should use condoms for the next month before trying to conceive.

Keep up to date with the evolving situation by checking the UK foreign office website.

Dr Jessica Garner is a GP and health blogger. Visit her blog here.