Zika virus: what you need to know

The recent outbreak of Zika virus in Brazil has prompted concerns about the rapid spread of the virus, and the potential for outbreaks in cities globally. 

We explain what you need to know if you’re heading to Zika-affected countries to minimise your risk of becoming infected.

 

The Zika virus has spread to Brazil and other countries in South America, prompting concerns of further spread from the World Health Organisation. Thousands of people have been infected in Brazil, and the mosquito-borne virus is now present in more than 20 countries.

Zika is a particular concern for pregnant women as it’s been linked to birth defects in thousands of babies born to Zika virus-infected mothers in Brazil.

What is Zika virus?

Zika is a mosquito-borne virus that’s spread through the bite from a mosquito carrying the virus, mainly Aedes aegypti - the same mosquito species that carries dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever.

It was first discovered in rhesus monkeys in the Zika forest of Uganda in 1947. The virus occurs in tropical areas with large Aedes mosquito populations.

In the past there have been reported outbreaks in tropical Asia, South East Asia and the Pacific Islands, but most recently outbreaks have emerged in South and Central America.

What are the symptoms of Zika virus?

Most people who are infected don’t experience symptoms, but 1 in 5 people will experience mild symptoms which can last between 2 and 7 days.

Symptoms include:

  •  fever
  • joint pain in hands and feet (sometimes with swelling)
  • itching
  • rash
  • conjunctivitis/red eyes
  • headache
  • muscle pain.

How is Zika virus spread?

Zika virus is primarily spread through the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito. The best way to protect yourself is to prevent being bitten by a mosquito.

Why is Zika virus a concern for pregnant women?

Zika virus has been linked to a serious birth defect in babies born to women who were infected with the Zika virus while pregnant. The birth defect, called microcephaly, is a condition where a baby’s head is abnormally small usually due problems during brain development. .

Because of the risk of this birth defect, pregnant women (in any trimester) are advised to consider postponing travel to any areas where there is an outbreak. If you can’t avoid travel, it’s vital to see your doctor and take every possible precaution to prevent mosquito bites.

If you’re trying to have a baby, talk to your doctor about the risks before heading overseas to countries where Zika is present.

pregnant woman travelling

If I’m not pregnant is it safe to travel?

The Australian government advises all travellers to read advice on the smart traveller website about their destination. If you’re travelling to an affected area, it’s vital to protect yourself from mosquito bites.

There are no reported cases of locally-acquired Zika virus in Australia, and officials will be monitoring ports of entry into the country.

If you’re feeling unwell when away or after you return home, it’s important to see a doctor and mention your recent travel.

Prevention

Treatment

If you are infected with Zika virus there is no specific treatment, but there are things you can do to ease the symptoms:

  • Rest
  • Drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration
  • Take paracetamol to reduce pain and fever
  • Don’t take aspirin or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (e.g. ibuprofen)
  • If you take medicines for another medical condition, talk to your doctor or a pharmacist before taking any new medicines
  • If your symptoms worsen see a medical professional.

There is currently no cure for, or vaccine to protect against, Zika virus infection.

The best way to protect yourself against Zika virus is to prevent being bitten by a mosquito. The mosquitoes that spread Zika are usually most active during the daytime from sunrise to sunset, but it’s important to avoid potential bites around the clock.

  • Use insect repellent containing DEET or picaridin
  • Wear clothes that cover as much of the body as possible (preferably lighter colours)
  • Use physical barriers like screens, and closing doors and windows
  • Sleep under mosquito nets.

Mosquitos lay their eggs and breed in water so it’s important to empty, clean or cover containers that can hold water (like buckets, flower pots or tyres).

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