How Zika Virus Works


Protecting Yourself — and Fighting Back
Health workers fumigate in an attempt to eradicate Zika-carrying mosquitoes in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil.
Health workers fumigate in an attempt to eradicate Zika-carrying mosquitoes in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

We said above that the obvious answer to avoiding mosquito-borne viruses is to avoid mosquito bites. This is easier said than done with Aedes, which bite aggressively, mainly (but not exclusively) during the day, and live and feed both indoors and out [source: CDC]. But mosquitos are only half of the equation. The other half is their preferred meal — us [source: CDC].

In many areas, including the U.S., mosquitos do not yet carry Zika, and all cases come from human travelers. We want to keep it that way. So if you think you have Zika, see a doctor, and try to avoid being bitten by any mosquitos, especially during the first week of illness [source: CDC]. Also, as mentioned previously, you should really abstain from sex. But if you can't fight the urge to merge, at least inform your partners, and use condoms the right way every time [source: McNeil et al.].

Bite avoidance is mainly a matter of wearing the right clothes, controlling your environment and living better through chemistry. Make long-sleeved shirts and long pants your new fashion statement, and treat your togs with permethrin. Spend some quality time in air-conditioned spaces, deck out your domicile with screens and screen doors, and sleep under a mosquito net when camping or traveling in Zika-infested countries [source: CDC].

Obviously, travelers should pay attention to health notices and avoid traveling to places where Zika exists, if possible [sources: CDC, McNeil et al.].

States and countries are fighting Zika through a combination of tracking populations and denying the critters their preferred habitat. You can help by organizing your neighborhood to cover, get rid of and dry out areas where water collects. Aedes mosquitos lay their eggs in standing water, and even a bottle cap's worth can be enough. During mosquito season, officials will sample adult mosquitos for evidence of infection and apply adulticides around homes known to have Zika [sources: CDC, McNeil et al.].

More radical solutions with potentially unforeseeable and dangerous consequences involve wiping out the mosquitos themselves. One company is offering to spread genetically modified mosquitos to wipe out Aedes vectors. These male mosquitoes are engineered to have offspring that die before adulthood [source: Barker]. But the wrong approach could have disastrous ecological consequences. Whether that will stay our hands for long remains to be seen.

Author's Note: How Zika Virus Works

In many ways, Zika is a nightmare for epidemiologists, and not only because it is spreading through an area of the world with plenty of mosquito habitat and no immunity to the disease. No, what makes Zika truly awful is its horrifying, yet unproven, link to microcephaly. Emotion makes for a poor companion to crisis decision-making and — after an Ebola outbreak that many viewed as poorly handled, and faced with images of suffering babies and mothers — we're primed for overreaction. The question is, do we know enough about Zika to measure our approach, to put resources where they can do the most good, or will we let our fears get the better of us?

For now, Zika will spread — or, perhaps not. It's possible the virus has already peaked, at least in the region where it hit most intensely [source: McNeil et al.]. The only thing that is truly clear is that scientists need to understand how Zika affects developing fetuses, whether through mouse models, "brain balls" grown from stem cells or some other means [source: Wade]. We simply lack too many essential answers.

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Sources

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