What Is Zika and How Do I Protect Myself Against It?

We know, we know, you've been saying to yourself, "Gosh, we’re almost a month into 2016, and we haven’t had a worldwide panic about an infectious disease yet! What's the delay? And more importantly, what am I supposed to do with all of these surgical masks I bought last year?"

Excellent questions. First, the delay is over, it's here now -- and it's known as Zika. And second, maybe use them when you're mowing the lawn? 'Cause you're not going to need them with this disease, even if you're traveling to a hotspot.
Here's what you need to know about Zika.

Zika? Sounds like a Swedish pop band.

If only. Zika is a virus carried by the Aedes mosquito, which if you often do well on the "Mosquitos" category on Jeopardy!, you know is also the insect responsible for spreading dengue fever and chikungunya. First discovered in Uganda in 1947, the most notable outbreak of Zika took place in 2007 on the Micronesian island of Yap; 75% of the population became infected. In May 2015, the first case was reported in Northeastern Brazil, and it's from this area that the current epidemic began. Over the last eight months, Zika has spread to 21 countries, including:

Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, Suriname, and Venezuela.
As of publish time, cases have now been reported in eight US states (including Florida, Texas, and most recently, Arkansas and Virginia) as a result of infected people returning from South America. The World Health Organization has predicted that Zika will quickly spread to every country in the Western Hemisphere that has Aedes mosquitoes -- which is every country except Canada and Chile. So yeah, that winter vacation to Edmonton is looking a whole lot more appealing.
While symptoms of the disease are reportedly unpleasant, they are not fatal. In fact, only about one in five people who get Zika even show symptoms, which include fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). Patients don’t typically require much medical treatment and usually recover within a week.


Well, that doesn’t seem so bad

Not so fast. For your average person, Zika isn’t much more than an excuse to take a few sick days. But if you happen to be pregnant, it’s a MUCH bigger concern. While scientists haven’t been able to directly link Zika to birth defects, 3,500 babies in Brazil have been born since the outbreak with significantly undersized heads and brains, a condition known as microcephaly.

It’s not pretty.

Microcephaly can also lead to miscarriages and stillborn births, so if you’re pregnant, best to hold off on that South American vacation. US government agencies in the affected areas are already sending home pregnant employees and dependents just to play it safe. The governments of Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, and Jamaica have gone a step further and are advising women not to even get pregnant, possibly until 2018.

Is there a cure for Zika?

No. There is no cure or treatment for Zika, so if you’re pregnant and have recently traveled to Central or South America -- or the Caribbean -- doctors advise that you monitor your pregnancy closely. In early January, a woman from Oahu who’d recently spent time in Brazil gave birth to the first US baby believed to have Zika-related microcephaly, so Americans are not immune.

If your travel plans do call for a trip south, make sure you’re covering yourself in mosquito repellant. Like, multiple times a day, even if you’re one of those, "I never get bitten" kind of people. Also, the WHO advises wearing clothes that completely cover your body -- bad news for your tan, but good news for your health.

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Matt Meltzer is a staff writer for Thrillist. Follow him on Instagram: @meltez1.