With COVID-19 all over the news, it’s easy to forget about other health issues that we should continue to be concerned with. Take the Zika virus, for example.

Zika is a virus spread by mosquitoes, although it can be spread through sexual activity as well. It was first found in the United States in July 2016, and in Latin and South America over a year before that. It’s not a new virus though. It was first diagnosed in humans in 1952 in Africa.

Zika was under-reported

There were many news stories in the U.S. at the time warning people about Zika, particularly pregnant women, as they are at highest risk of complications related to the virus. But a new study published in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases shows that cases of the virus were seriously under-reported, and many more people in the U.S. were infected than originally thought.

“Fewer than 15% of cases were actually reported and it shows our surveillance systems catch only a small percentage of actual infections,” said lead author Sean Moore, PhD, in a press release. Dr. Moore is a research assistant professor in the department of biological sciences at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

Zika symptoms

Most of the time, Zika is relatively harmless. According to the Mayo Clinic, most people who contract the infection are asymptomatic. Those who do show symptoms usually experience a combination of:

  • Mild fever
  • Rash
  • Joint pain
  • Headache
  • Conjunctivitis (pink eye)

However, the biggest concern is for pregnant women. The virus can trigger miscarriages. It can also cause a birth defect called microcephaly. This is a condition in which a baby is born with a head much smaller than it should be. This usually results in brain damage.

The lack of adequate virus tracking makes it difficult for public health officials to determine where there are true outbreaks of the infection, and to make plans to warn the population. Knowing the number of cases helps officials track whether a community has developed herd immunity – meaning that enough people in the community are protected against infection.

“Our research suggests a need for a better understanding of how much transmission is happening within a community,” Dr. Moore said. “The risk of congenital birth defects in pregnant women infected with Zika virus required a separate surveillance system — testing both the mother and the baby — to capture a more accurate indicator of underlying transmission. Without widescale testing and a comprehensive system like that, we can miss how large an outbreak is in the general population.”

To prevent the spread of Zika, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention offers this advice:

  • Stay away from areas with high Zika case counts, especially if you’re pregnant.
  • Wear long sleeves and pants, where possible, to limit mosquito bites.
  • Use insect repellants that have been listed by the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Young children and babies should be protected with clothing and covers over strollers and carriages.
  • Use condoms during sexual activity if you or your partner may have been exposed to the virus.

The take-away

If you believe you may have been infected with Zika, ask your doctor about testing. Zika can be diagnosed with a blood or urine test. When making travel plans, check to see if Zika is active in the area, and if so, consider going elsewhere, especially if you are pregnant.