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We’ve been talking about Zika virus for just over a year now. In that time, more than 60 countries have reported outbreaks, and with 15 (and counting) documented cases in Florida, fears of local transmission in the continental U.S. have finally become a reality.
In fact, the current travel warning about Miami is the first time (ever) that both the Centers for Disease Control in the U.S. and the Public Health Agency of Canada are asking people not to travel to a part of the U.S. mainland for fear of an infectious disease.
So How Did This Happen?
There’ve been more than 1,500 cases of Zika in the U.S. and Canada in people returning from other parts of the world, as well as several cases of local sexual transmission.
And now that it’s summer in the U.S., the mosquito that spreads Zika (Aedes aegypti) is active in certain areas, including Florida.
One of these local mosquitos presumably become infected by biting a traveler who brought back the virus, and then started spreading it by biting other people.
The good news is that we have experience with Dengue and Chikungunya, which are other tropical viruses that had outbreaks in the U.S. and are spread by the same mosquito.
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And unlike in other parts of the world, it’s likely that Zika virus will spread slowly and remain relatively contained in the U.S. because of better mosquito control, better housing, more common use of air conditioning and use of screens on windows and doors.
READ MORE: Should Canadians worry about Zika virus?
The bad news is that the Florida cases were found by proactive door-to-door sampling, and most of the patients didn’t even know they were infected.
This means that there are probably a lot more people who are infected in Florida, and several other states will likely also report cases.
So…what if you are travelling to an area with Zika virus?
If you’re going to the Rio Olympics, keep in mind that it’s winter in Brazil, which means that mosquito season is over and the risk of catching the virus is very low.
You can further reduce the risk by covering exposed skin with long sleeved tops and pants, shoes as opposed to sandals, and by applying insect repellent (make sure you do this after you apply your sunblock).
Do those of us living in Canada have to worry about this virus? The answer is still no, because the mosquito that carries Zika virus can’t survive in our climate.
But I will say that we’ve learned some surprising things about this virus, including how common sexual transmission seems to be, the fact that it can be found in certain body fluids (e.g. semen) for over two months after infection and the possibility that mosquitoes other than the usual culprit may be able to spread the virus (still only a theory for now).
So although we have nothing to fear here in Canada, we still have much to learn about this infection.