Protect yourself against Zika virus

By Dr. Patricia Quinlisk

As Iowans trudge through the snow and bundle up against the cold, the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) has its thoughts on sand and sun. It’s not a cheery attitude inspiring these visions. It’s concern over the Zika virus, and protecting Iowa’s snowbirds that annually go south to escape the Midwestern chill.

In 2016, nearly two dozen cases of Zika virus were reported in Iowa. None of these cases were acquired locally; all the individuals had traveled to an area of ongoing Zika virus transmission where they were bitten by a Zika virus-carrying mosquito and became ill.

This travel issue remains the main threat to Iowans. In fact, the species of mosquito that carries the Zika virus (Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus) are not native to Iowa. It’s highly unlikely that any Iowan would be bitten by a mosquito able to transmit the Zika virus here (during Iowa’s warm weather months, West Nile virus is a much higher mosquito-borne disease threat).  

The threat of Zika virus transmission, however, is very real for Iowans traveling to areas such as Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, South America and some small areas of Florida. In these areas, Zika-carrying mosquitoes continue to transmit the virus and travelers there should take care to prevent mosquito bites.

The most significant concern is for pregnant women whose pregnancy can result in microcephaly – a condition in which a child is born with an abnormally small head and which can lead to mild to severe developmental delay, intellectual disability, seizures, hearing and  vision problems, as well as movement and balance challenges. In Iowa, this population of pregnant women is the primary target for education. Local public health agencies, under the guidance of the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) are advising pregnant women to reconsider travel to areas of ongoing Zika transmission, and if they do go there, to take protective action against mosquito bites, such as wearing DEET-containing repellant and long sleeves and pants.

Zika sounds like an exotic, new disease; however, the virus was first discovered in 1947 in Uganda and the first human cases were documented in 1952. Since that time, outbreaks have occurred in 2007 and 2013-2014 in the Pacific Islands, and most recently, the outbreak which began in Brazil in 2015.

The virus is carried by mosquitoes which bite an infected human, then transmit the virus to another human through a bite. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also confirmed cases of the virus being sexually transmitted through semen.

The majority of individuals infected with the virus have no symptoms; only 20 percent of those infected with Zika have symptoms and those symptoms are typically mild – fever, rash, and pink eye. Hospitalization rates are very low. At this time, there is no vaccine, nor treatment for Zika.

A poll conducted by Harvard University found a great deal of misunderstanding among Americans about the virus. While 87 percent of those questioned understood Zika virus is transmitted by mosquitoes, about one in five (22 percent) were not aware the virus can be transmitted from mother to baby during pregnancy and about one-third (31 percent) mistakenly believed Zika can be transmitted by coughing or sneezing (like influenza).

To learn more about the Zika virus, areas of ongoing transmission, and weekly status reports, visit

Dr. Patricia Quinlisk, is the Iowa Department of Public Health medical director and state epidemiologist.