The outbreak of Zika virus in South and Central America, and the Caribbean, has attracted widespread media coverage with particular focus on an apparent increase in the number of babies born with microcephaly (a smaller head than expected which can be due to abnormal brain development).
To bring together up-to-date information on the virus we’ve put together a Q&A which includes information on the risk this virus presents to the UK and our current advice for travellers and pregnant women:
What is Zika and how does it spread?
Zika is a disease caused by a virus that is spread to people by a certain type of mosquito. To get infected by the virus, a person needs to be bitten by an infected female mosquito, most commonly a mosquito called Aedes aegypti. This virus is not passed from person to person like flu or measles.
Is there a risk to people living in the UK?
The risk to the general population living in the UK is extremely low. For the virus to survive and spread in a country, the right mosquito needs to be present. In the UK, the type of mosquito that could spread Zika virus cannot survive here. For this reason, the risk of a Zika virus outbreak in the UK is negligible.
In the coming months we expect to see an increase in the number of Zika virus cases diagnosed in the UK in people who have travelled to countries where there is active Zika transmission (as the awareness of the disease increases, more people will be tested). These cases do not present a risk to the general public.
What are the symptoms of Zika virus?
The vast majority of people infected with Zika do not feel unwell. Of those with symptoms, some may experience a mild, short-lived illness for 2-7 days. Symptoms can include a slight fever, joint pain, rash, conjunctivitis (red eyes), headache, eye pain and muscle pain. Severe symptoms are very uncommon.
Can Zika infection be treated?
There is no specific treatment for Zika infection. As Zika causes such a mild illness, supportive care and relief of symptoms is not needed for those with symptoms.
Prevention of Zika virus infection using mosquito bite avoidance measures is the best option, if you travel to a country where there is active Zika transmission. At the moment there is no vaccine or specific drug to prevent Zika infection.
Is it safe to travel to areas where there is active Zika transmission?
Most people infected by the Zika virus will have no symptoms or only a mild illness. Given the possible link between microcephaly and pregnancy, as a precaution, we are advising women who are pregnant to postpone non-essential travel to areas with active Zika transmission until after pregnancy.
As with any foreign travel, people should speak to their GP or a travel clinic well in advance of their trip to get the best travel advice. In countries where there is active Zika transmission, all travellers should follow standard mosquito protection advice, which can also be found on the NaTHNaC Travel Health Pro website. This website will be updated regularly as more information becomes available. As the mosquitos that spread Zika bite mostly during the day, it’s very important to protect against bites during the day and night.
What’s the risk for pregnant women who travel to countries where Zika is spreading?
Zika virus infection has a possible association with congenital malformations (birth defects) and this is being investigated. Since October 2015, the Brazilian Ministry of Health has reported an apparent increase in the number of babies born with microcephaly (a smaller head than expected which can be due to abnormal brain development) and has suggested a possible link between the increase in microcephaly and Zika virus.
While these investigations are ongoing, and as a precaution, we are advising women who are pregnant or are planning to get pregnant to postpone non-essential travel to areas with active Zika transmission until after pregnancy. Further information on this and other travel advice can be found on the NaTHNaC Travel Health Pro website.
In addition it is recommended that women should avoid becoming pregnant while travelling in an area with active Zika virus transmission, and for 28 days following return home. If a woman develops symptoms compatible with Zika virus infection on her return to the UK, it is recommended she avoids becoming pregnant for a further 28 days following recovery.
If travel is unavoidable, pregnant women should take careful insect bite avoidance measures both during daytime and night time hours. Women who are planning to become pregnant should discuss their travel plans with their healthcare provider to assess the risk of infection and receive advice on avoiding mosquito bites.
Is Zika sexually transmitted?
A number of cases of sexual transmission of Zika virus have been reported, and in a limited number of cases, the virus has been shown to be present in semen. The risk of sexual transmission of Zika virus is thought to be very low.
- condom use is advised for male travellers if their partner is pregnant, during travel and for the duration of the pregnancy
- if there is a risk of pregnancy, or pregnancy is planned, condom use is advised during travel and for 28 days on return from an active Zika transmission area if the male traveller does not have any symptoms compatible with Zika virus infection. If a clinical illness compatible with Zika virus infection has been suspected or confirmed, this advice should be followed for 6 months following the start of symptoms.
- even if not pregnant or planning to be, couples who wish to reduce the very low risk of virus transmission may consider using condoms if the man has had clinical illness compatible with Zika infection
This advice will be kept under review so it is important to contact your GP if you are concerned.
What if I’ve been to an affected country and suspect I have the virus?
If you’ve recently returned from an area where Zika virus is currently reported and have a fever or flu-like illness it’s important to seek medical attention (make sure you mention your travel history) to exclude other more serious mosquito borne diseases such as malaria which may be present in the country as well.
Where can I keep up to date with the developing situation?
Health professionals can find Zika updates and guidance on GOV.UK. Specific travel advice can be found on the NaTHNaC Travel Health Pro website. Members of the public can get advice on the NHS Choices website.