Understanding the Zika Virus

Milken Institute School of Public Health Professor Rebecca Katz explains how travelers can stay safe.

A female Aedes aegypti mosquito in the process of acquiring a blood meal from her human host. (Photo: James Gathany)
February 10, 2016
With the Zika outbreak spreading across Latin America, health experts and politicians are hurrying to understand the root of the epidemic. The World Health Organization declared a "public health emergency of international concern" last week as cases of the disease multiplied in Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. Just days ago, President Barack Obama requested $1.8 billion in emergency congressional funding to help develop a vaccine.  
But what exactly is the Zika virus, and should Americans be worried about contracting the disease?
To find out, George Washington Today reporter Julyssa Lopez spoke with Rebecca Katz, associate professor of health policy and global health and emergency medicine at the Milken Institute School of Public Health. Dr. Katz explained what the virus is and how travelers in Zika-infected countries can keep safe. Please refer to zika information and prevention resources from the university.
Q: What is Zika virus, and what do we know about the symptoms?
A: In one sentence, Zika is a mosquito-borne virus.  Most people who are infected—about 80 percent—will have no symptoms, but those that get sick mostly have mild symptoms, including rash, fever and pink eye.  
The reason for all of the concern, however, is that while causation has not yet been established, there is a strong correlation between Zika infection in pregnant women and birth defects. There is also a potential link between Zika and Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a rare disorder in which a person’s immune system damages nerve cells, causing muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis.
Q: We saw one case that suggests the virus can be sexually transmitted. What else do we know about how the virus spreads? 
A: The virus is spread through mosquitos. There have been a handful of cases suggesting the virus can also be transmitted sexually. 
Q: How is the Zika virus treated? How quickly can experts create a vaccine or treatment option?
A:  At this point, there is no treatment for Zika. The U.S. government and others are rapidly investing in research and development to create a vaccine. 
Q: Should people traveling to Latin America be cautious? Is it likely the virus will spread in the United States?
 A: People traveling to Zika-infected areas should take precautions against mosquito bites. 
It is very likely that the virus will spread to the U.S., since the mosquitos that carry the virus can be found throughout much of the country, including Washington, D.C.   Hopefully, though, with this focused attention on the virus, we will know more about transmission, risks and treatment options by the time the weather warms in the region.