The Zika Virus Could Be More Dangerous Than We Originally Thought

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UPDATE: The devastating Zika virusSo, after they told us all to calm down, Zika wasn’t dangerous, they’re beginning to change their tune.

Now, medical experts have leant that you can transmit the virus through sex, and that it can cause side effects like paralysis—even if you aren’t pregnant. According to a new study, Zika virus has been linked to yet another serious side effect: the autoimmune disorder acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, which is about as scary as its name suggests. The disease, which is similar to multiple sclerosis, causes a swelling of the brain and spinal cord. And that ain’t something you mess around with. When it comes to pregnancy, the range of potential birth defects caused by the disease is bigger than experts initially thought, too.

The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta says that nationwide, as of Wednesday:

As of April 13, 2016 (5 am EST)

  • Zika virus disease and Zika virus congenital infection are nationally notifiable conditions.
  • This update from the CDC Arboviral Disease Branch includes provisional data reported to ArboNET for January 1, 2015 – April 13, 2016.

US States

  • Travel-associated Zika virus disease cases reported: 358
  • Locally acquired vector-borne cases reported: 0
  • Total: 358
    • Pregnant: 31
    • Sexually transmitted: 7
    • Guillain-Barré syndrome: 1

US Territories

  • Travel-associated cases reported: 4
  • Locally acquired cases reported: 471
  • Total: 475
    • Pregnant: 58
    • Guillain-Barré syndrome: 1

Map of the United States showing Travel-associated and Locally acquired cases of the Zika virus. The locations and number of cases can be found in the table below.

Laboratory-confirmed Zika virus disease cases reported to ArboNET by state or territory — United States, 2015–2016 (as of April 13, 2016)

States Travel-associated cases*
No. (%)
(N=358)
Locally acquired cases†
No. (%)
(N=0)
Alabama 2      (1) 0    (0)
Arizona 1      (<1) 0    (0)
Arkansas 2      (1) 0    (0)
California 29    (8) 0    (0)
Colorado 2      (1) 0    (0)
Connecticut 1      (<1) 0    (0)
Delaware 3      (1) 0    (0)
District of Columbia 3      (1) 0    (0)
Florida 82    (23) 0    (0)
Georgia 11    (3) 0    (0)
Hawaii 5      (1) 0    (0)
Illinois 10    (3) 0    (0)
Indiana 6      (2) 0    (0)
Iowa 4      (1) 0    (0)
Kansas 1      (<1) 0    (0)
Kentucky 3      (1) 0    (0)
Louisiana 4      (1) 0    (0)
Maine 1      (<1) 0    (0)
Maryland 7      (2) 0    (0)
Massachusetts 7      (2) 0    (0)
Michigan 2      (1) 0    (0)
Minnesota 12    (3) 0    (0)
Mississippi 3      (1) 0    (0)
Missouri 3      (1) 0    (0)
Montana 1      (<1) 0    (0)
Nebraska 2      (1) 0    (0)
Nevada 2      (1) 0    (0)
New Hampshire 2      (1) 0    (0)
New Jersey 8      (2) 0    (0)
New York 54    (15) 0    (0)
North Carolina 9      (3) 0    (0)
Ohio 9      (3) 0    (0)
Oklahoma 3      (1) 0    (0)
Oregon 6      (2) 0    (0)
Pennsylvania 12    (3) 0    (0)
Tennessee 2      (1) 0    (0)
Texas 27    (8) 0    (0)
Utah 2      (1) 0    (0)
Virginia 8      (2) 0    (0)
Washington 2      (1) 0    (0)
West Virginia 5      (1) 0    (0)
Territories (N=4) (N=471)
American Samoa 0      (0) 14      (3)
Puerto Rico 3      (75) 445    (94)
US Virgin Islands 1      (25) 12      (3)

*Travelers returning from affected areas, their sexual contacts, or infants infected in utero
†Presumed local mosquito-borne transmission

“Given the increased concerns about this virus, we will look for additional ways to communicate the important prevention steps, particularly wearing insect repellent and getting rid of standing water,” said Shawn Kiernan, Communicable Disease Epidemiologist with the Fairfax (Virginia) County Health Department, in a recent online chat about the Zika virus.

While researchers learn more about the risk of Zika virus infection during pregnancy, CDC is advising pregnant women to avoid travel to areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing. Pregnant women and women who are trying to become pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant should talk to their health care provider before traveling to Zika-affected areas and follow steps to prevent mosquito bites while traveling.

Zika virus can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus and can cause a serious birth defect of the brain called microcephaly (abnormally small head) in babies of women who had Zika virus while pregnant. Other problems have been detected among fetuses and infants infected with Zika virus before birth, such as absent or poorly developed brain structures, defects of the eye, hearing deficits, and impaired growth.  CDC recommends special precautions for pregnant women. Women who are pregnant should not travel to areas with Zika. If you must travel to one of these areas or if you live in an area with Zika, talk to your healthcare provider and strictly follow steps to prevent mosquito bites and to prevent sexual transmission during your trip.

If you feel that you may have Zika virus, you should talk to your healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider will contact the local health department to determine if testing is necessary.

“Everything we look at with this virus seems to be a bit scarier than we initially thought,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, CDC deputy director, said this week. “And so while we absolutely hope we don’t see widespread local transmission in the continental U.S., we need the states to be ready for that.”

Zika virus is typically spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, but the Aedes albopictus, or Asian Tiger mosquito can also transmit it.

Aedes mosquitoes lay their eggs in containers of water. The CDC advise that to prevent mosquitoes in your yard, eliminate standing water. Tip and toss standing water from containers like tires, buckets, flower pots, drain pipes, tarps, bird baths, toys, etc. Discard containers or place indoors.

If you cannot dump water from a container, treat it with a larvicide like Bacillus thuringiensis var.israelensis (follow label instructions). If mosquitoes are flying and biting, use insecticides in your yard to control them. Treat areas where they hide, like bushy green plants, ivy and bamboo (follow label instructions).

For mosquitoes to cause a Zika outbreak in the United States, the CDC says all of the following must happen:

  • People infected with a virus (like Zika, dengue, or chikungunya) must enter the United States.
  • An Aedes aegypti or Aedes albopictus mosquito in the United States bites an infected person during the first week of infection when the virus can be found in the person’s blood.
  • The infected mosquito lives long enough for the virus to multiply and for the mosquito to bite another person.
  • The cycle continues multiple times to start an outbreak.