Zika virus: The symptoms and what travellers and pregnant women need to know

The virus is linked to a rare brain defect in foetuses 

The Zika virus is becoming a growing public health concern in the Americas, prompting officials to advise pregnant women and those who are trying to conceive to take precautions to prevent catching the virus that can damage the brains of foetuses.

Health ministers in El Salvador are the latest officials to release warnings about the virus, and have advised women to put off becoming pregnant for the next two years to avoid their unborn babies from developing microcephaly – which stops brains from growing and the head appear shrunken.

The number of cases of microcephaly in Brazil, which is also affected, has risen to 3,893 since October 2015. Currently, there are 96 suspected cases of pregnant women with the virus in El Salvador.

Here is what you need to know about the virus if you are pregnant or planning to travel to affected regions. 

What is Zika?

Zika is a virus spread by mosquitos. Symptoms include a mild fever, rash, headaches, joint and muscle pain, weakness, and puss-free conjunctivitis. The signs usually start showing between two to seven days after a mosquito bite. Symptoms then continue for around two to seven days. 

For most people, Zika is mild and short-lived, however its affect on babies is what is concerning the authorities and pregnant women. 

How is it spread? 

Zika is spread by the bite of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which can also carry dengue and chikungunya. 

It also remains in semen for up to two weeks after a man is infected. 

Where am I at risk of catching it?

The largest outbreak of the virus is currently unfolding in Brazil - mainly in the impoverished north - where it has been linked to a surge in birth defects including microcephaly. 

The states with the largest number of cases include: Pernambuco, Paraíba, Bahia, Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte, Sergipe, Alagoas, Mato Grosso and Rio de Janeiro, according to the UK Government. 

As well as Brazil and El Salvador, countries where Zika has been reported currently include: Barbados, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, Suriname, and Venezuela. 

The virus is known to circulate in parts of Africa, Asia and the Pacific.

How can I protect myself

Mirroring health advice from governments including the US and UK, El Salvador's vice-minister of public health Eduardo Espinoza recently told women who are pregnant to stay covered outdoors to lessen the risk of being bitten by mosquitos – both day and night. 

Extra precaution can be taken by treating clothing in insecticide such as permethrin, as well as applying insect repellent over sunscreen. 

Health officials recommend not suing sun screen which is sold with insect repellent. 

Avoiding and removing what attracts mosquitos can also help, including  carbon dioxide, heat and movement.The WHO also recommends ensuring mosquotis do not have a place to breed, but emptying and cleaning out containers that can hold water, such as buckets, flower pots or tyres.

If you are pregnant and have recently travelled to a country where Zika is known to be an issue, or you are planning on doing so, you should contact your obstetrician or midwife

How are officials trying to stop it?

There is currently no cure for Zika. However, Brazil’s Presidet Dilma Rousseff recently announced that  Brazil is trying to develop vaccine against the Zika and dengue viruses, also spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. 

Meanwhile, El Salvador has launched an anti-mosquito campaign by using special mists. 

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