Until its May 2015 outbreak in Brazil, Zika virus was a little-known illness. It was one of many vector-borne diseases – infections transmitted through living organisms – spread by biting insects such as mosquitoes, ticks, flies and fleas. When it comes to Zika, the culprit is a familiar pest: the mosquito.
Facts About Vector-borne Diseases
- They account for more than 17% of all infectious diseases, causing more than one million deaths annually around the world.
- Mosquitoes are by far the most common vector and are also responsible for spreading malaria, chikungunya, West Nile virus and dengue.
- They are among the most complex infectious diseases to prevent and control.
About 1 in 5 people who get infected with Zika virus show symptoms and most people who contract the virus experience mild symptoms that last 7-10 days. Symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis (red eyes). It’s rare for someone infected with Zika to become seriously sick or die.
“Infectious diseases must be treated like any other hazard to health and safety,” says LIUNA General-Secretary Treasurer and Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “Whether it is Zika, West Nile or another disease, there are steps we can take to limit how much they spread.”
The focus on Zika increased after it was linked to birth defects in children. Concern grew even more after it was confirmed that the virus can be spread from person to person during sexual contact. Sexual transmission of Zika virus is of particular concern during pregnancy.
Zika and Pregnancy
We know Zika can spread from a pregnant mother to her baby, and that infection during pregnancy may be linked to babies born with microcephaly, a condition associated with incomplete brain development and an abnormally small head.
Understanding the link between Zika virus and pregnancy is still evolving. Because of the possible risk to unborn babies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant consider postponing travel to areas with known Zika transmissions. If you are pregnant and must travel to one of these areas, talk to your health care provider first and strictly follow steps to prevent mosquito bites.
Zika in the Continental United States
Zika is currently not found in the continental United States, but cases have been reported in returning travelers. Because of the recent outbreaks in Central and South America, we expect to see more cases of Zika in travelers visiting or returning to the U.S.
Many areas in the continental United States, primarily in the Southeast and Gulf Coast regions (due to their warm, wet and humid climate), have mosquitoes that may become infected with and spread Zika virus. The CDC does not anticipate a widespread epidemic in the U.S. but does recommend limiting travel to affected areas and taking precautions against mosquito bites. Limited local transmission may occur in the U.S., but widespread transmission of Zika is unlikely. Like other infectious viruses, prevention is pivotal in reducing the prevalence of Zika.
Tips for Preventing Mosquito Bites
“Mosquito bites are bothersome enough, but when you consider the other risks, it is even more important to avoid being bitten,” says Sabitoni. “It’s important to choose products and methods that work well and that are easy to use regularly.”
- Wear an insect repellent registered by the Environmental Protection Agency. Use insect repellent or wear protective clothing wherever mosquitoes are found. Repellents containing DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus and para-menthane-diol provide long-lasting protection. Reapply every four hours and learn more about avoiding bug bites.
- Keep mosquitoes outside. Use air conditioning or make sure there are window/door screens in place. If you aren’t able to protect yourself from mosquitoes when indoors, sleep under a mosquito net.
- Alternative methods. Fans can also help ward off mosquitoes because mosquitoes are relatively weak fliers. Fans disperse scents and substances that attract mosquitoes (e.g., carbon dioxide, sweat, odors, etc.). There are also some natural repellent options if you want to avoid chemicals.
- Protect yourself when traveling. Learn about country-specific travel advice, health risks and how to stay safe by visiting the CDC’s Travelers’ Health page.
Visit your health care provider right away if you develop a fever, headache, rash or muscle or joint pain.
- Tell your doctor about your recent international travel.
- Visit the CDC’s Getting Sick after Travel webpage for more information.
What Employers and Workers Can Do
- Make sure outdoor areas are cleared of standing water (in barrels, buckets, tires, etc.), which is an ideal breeding ground for these nasty pests. Check for standing water in downspouts and gutters and fill holes than can collect rainwater.
- Whether at work or at home, workers should keep their distance from areas with known heavy mosquito populations, use insect repellents and wear light-colored clothing that cover the majority of the body.
- If working in areas with known or suspected infected mosquitoes, workers should use physical barriers such as mosquito nets to prevent the spread of infection.
- Mosquitoes are more active at dusk and dawn, so avoid being outdoors during these times if possible.
[Travis Parsons, the OSH Division’s Senior Safety and Health Specialist, and Emily Smith, the HP Division’s Wellness Coordinator, co-wrote this article.]