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Zika FAQ

by Dr Bob Kass - February 4, 2016

Ten facts to help you understand Zika a bit better

1. I haven't heard about Zika before. Is this a new disease?

Zika is not a new disease.  It was first diagnosed in Uganda in 1947. The virus is named after Zika forest in Uganda. There have been many outbreaks in different regions since then.

2. Where did the current outbreak originate from?

The current outbreak probably originated through the travel of an infected person from the Pacific in 2014.  A participant in the World Canoe Championships may have introduced it into Brazil from Tahiti. The other possibility is the 2014 World Cup.

The origin doesn't really matter as it would be inevitable for a mosquito-borne disease like this to cause an epidemic in a non-immune population. It will be a health issue in any area the mosquito is found, including northern Australia. The world is very well connected through air travel and most Zika-infected people have no symptoms!

3. How is it transmitted?

The Zika virus is transmitted through the bite of an infected Aedes Aegypti mosquito. Thisparticular mosquito is often referred to as a junkyard mosquito.  It prefers to breed in small containers  of water in densely populated slum areas rather than clean water in jungle areas.  

4. Does everyone become sick if infected with Zika?

Only about 20% of infected people have symptoms (fever, pain in the small joints of the hands and feet and rash).

5. Is there a vaccine currently available?

There is no vaccine for Zika and it may take a long time for the vaccine producers to develop one. 

6. Can Zika be easily diagnosed if I get sick while travelling or after returning to Australia?

A test is available for Zika but it may not be readily available in every centre. It is very expensive at the moment, and there will be reluctance to universally make the test accessible. The test would not be indicated for those that are not symptomatic. 

7. There are concerns that Zika can cause birth defects. My daughter is pregnant.  If I get infected while overseas, can I pass it on to her after returning?

The Zika virus requires a particular mosquito for transmission.  This mosquito is found in northern Australia only.  It would not be possible for an infected person to pass on the disease without the mosquito. It is possible for the disease to be transmitted via the placenta to an unborn child and by blood transfusion.

There are reports of Zika virus being transmitted sexually. Given the number of people who have been infected with the disease globally, the incidence of this is considered very low at this time.

Condoms might be considered to reduce the risk of Zika virus transmission while travelling in ‘at risk’ regions. Condoms or abstinence is recommended in situations where males are returning from infected regions and have a pregnant partner.

8. Should I change my travel plans to South and Central America given the large outbreak?

Health professionals with an interest in travel medicine have been alerting travellers to the risks of mosquito-borne diseases like Malaria, Dengue fever, Chikungunya and Zika for many years. Travellers are made aware of areas experiencing high rates of infection and mosquito avoidance measures are prioritized in any consultation. 

The advice is no different for those travelling to exotic tropical locations like the America’s and the Pacific …to that given to travellers visiting Australian destinations which might be experiencing outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases like Kunjin, Ross River and Barmah Forest.   

9. How can I reduce my risk of contracting Zika during travel?

The risk of disease is always proportional to exposure. The more mosquito bites the greater the risk. Unfortunately some people are more attractive to mosquito bites than others and these people must take extra care.  It is important to note that Aedes mosquitoes are day time biters with peak biting times a couple of hours after dawn and a couple of hours before sunset.  General recommendations include:

  • Understanding behaviour  and feeding of vector mosquito

  • Knowing peaks of biting times (either side of dusk and dawn)

  • Screening/air-conditioning

  • Spray rooms with ‘knock down’ insecticides

  • Mosquito coils

  • Light coloured clothes

  • Long trousers and shirtsleeves

  • The use of DEET and Picaridin  containing personal repellents on exposed skin

  • Consider impregnation of clothing with permethrin

  • Avoid strongly scented perfumes or toiletries

10. Can Zika be treated?

There is no specific treatment for Zika at the moment. Management is supportive with extra fluids, paracetamol and rest.

Image Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


Dr Bob Kass

Dr Bob Kass is Medical Director of Globe Medical. He holds specialist qualifications in paediatrics and public health medicine and is one of Australia's pioneers in the discipline of Travel Medicine. 

Full professional biography