Zika virus cases among women have more than tripled in the United States, forcing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue an unprecedented travel warning to prevent the disease’s leading health threat — a brain damaging birth defect known as microcephaly. The virus continues to thrive through mosquitoes, mild and often undistinguishable symptoms, sex, infected animals, and its ability to travel seamlessly from its African origin. How does an infectious disease like Zika move throughout the world so seamlessly?

“Genetically this virus is the same as the one that was circulating in Africa, but the question is: ‘What’s different about it? Why are so many people being affected?’” epidemiologist Dr. Jonathan Epstein, who is also the associate vice president of Conservation Medicine at EcoHealth Alliance, told Medical Daily. “Its onward spread was not unexpected based on travel, and what’s happened in the United States is (people)... in almost every state now have been to a Zika virus area, gotten infected, may or may not have known it, and then have come home.”

Zika Epidemic
The Zika virus has spread to epidemic proportions and experts have a plan on how to protect the public. Photo courtesy of Pixabay, public domain

Once experts realized there was a definitive increase in the number of microcephaly cases linked to Zika virus, they realized the transmission could continue to be a threat. When travelers entered a densely populated area where there were plenty of mosquitoes to continue transmission, such as when Zika reached Brazil in 2015, the virus transformed from being a public health concern into an epidemic.

“Our best weapon right now is mosquito control and that comes in two forms: Environmental control, which is public health officials spraying insecticide to kill adult mosquitoes and larva in areas that tend to be high density mosquito breeding areas,” Epstein said. “Second is people just being aware and understand there are things they can do in their own environment to limit the ability for mosquitoes to breed, like making sure there’s no standing water on your property. It doesn’t take much. These mosquitoes can breed in as little as a teaspoon of water."

Epstein explained we have enough mosquitoes present in the southern United States and central and eastern coasts that the chances of the virus continuing its spread have increased. The CDC warned travelers, especially women, to avoid traveling to Miami, Florida, in fear they’ll contract the virus that’s now infected a total of 14 people. Epstein said it was just a matter of time before a local mosquito picked it up from a traveler and gave the virus to someone else.

“Personal protection is also key, like wearing long sleeves and long pants, wearing mosquito repellant with at least 30 percent DEET in it to effectively repel mosquitoes. The biggest concern is for women of childbearing age to keep themselves protected and avoid traveling to an area where Zika virus is circulating and that goes the same for their partners. One of the insidious aspects of this disease is that it’s sexually transmitted, so a sexual partner can travel with Zika and bring it home and spread it to a woman who may become pregnant, so they need to be vigilant as a couple."