Zika panic has swept the globe, and for good reason. Zika is a mosquito-borne virus that can cause birth defects in unborn babies – and it happens to be spreading like wildfire. The World Health Organization has declared Zika a public health emergency. Here are a few things you need to know in order to meet this epidemic head-on.

A Few Zika Facts

The Zika virus is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, a very aggressive type of mosquito that lives in 34 countries and territories across the world. The World Health Organization estimates that 3 to 4 million people across North, Central, and South America will be infected with the virus over the coming year. Pregnant women in the United States have been warned not to travel to areas where the virus has been spreading; and by not traveling, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mean not now or in the next two years if women are pregnant or are planning to become pregnant.

Why Is It So Serious?

The Zika virus has been identified as a flavivirus. This makes it a close cousin to diseases such as West Nile, yellow fever, chikungunya, and dengue fever. But unlike those viruses, researchers have yet to create an effective vaccine to treat people again the ravages of Zika. And the most susceptible group to the virus also happens to be the most helpless: the unborn.

Babies born to mothers with Zika have been born with abnormally small skulls. This condition is called microcephaly, and researchers fear it’s just the tip of the iceberg of potential problems these children will face due to the virus. Another issue related to the virus is that it can spread to the fetus via amniotic fluid – and this is something not seen in other viruses of the flavivirus family. It’s a new foe that scientists have never faced before.

How Zika is Spread

The most common way for this virus to spread is through mosquito bites. When a mosquito bites an infected person, the mosquito then becomes a mode of transmission for the virus. It will bite healthy individuals and infect them, and then those people also become carriers.

Another way Zika can be spread is through sexual contact. Several cases of sexually transmitted Zika have popped up in the United States in individuals who had not traveled, but whose partner’s had. This is also alarming because researchers are just beginning to understand how long the Zika virus can stay active in semen – which it is theorized is for much longer than the blood.

Where You Can Find the Zika Virus Now

The Zika virus is active in the following places:

  • Aruba
  • Barbados
  • Bolivia
  • Bonaire
  • Brazil
  • Colombia
  • Puerto Rico
  • Costa Rica
  • Curacao
  • Dominican Republic
  • Ecuador
  • El Salvador
  • French Guiana
  • Guadeloupe
  • Guatemala
  • Guyana
  • Haiti
  • Honduras
  • Jamaica
  • Marshall Islands
  • Martinique
  • Mexico
  • Nicaragua
  • Panama
  • Paraguay
  • Saint Maarten
  • Suriname
  • Trinidad and Tobago
  • U.S. Virgin Islands
  • Venezuela
  • American Samoa
  • Samoa
  • Tonga
  • Cape Verde

The United States is at risk too, since the mosquitoes that transmit the virus is present is many states. So, just because you don’t see your state’s name on this list doesn’t mean you won’t eventually be impacted by this virus.

How to Protect Yourself

There is no treatment or vaccine available at this time, so the only way to protect yourself from Zika is to avoid travel to areas where the virus is active. If you do travel to Zika hotspots, make sure you take mosquito protection measures such as:

  • Applying mosquito repellent
  • Wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts
  • Sleeping in air-conditioned or screened rooms

If you find yourself infected with Zika, avoid spreading it to others by avoiding mosquito bites during the first week you’re infected. And if you’re planning on having a baby anytime soon you will need to discuss ways to prevent unplanned pregnancies from occurring while the virus is still active in you or your partner’s system.

How Zika is Being Stopped

A Zika virus vaccine is one the way. So close, in fact, human clinical trials should start this year. It may take a few years for an effective vaccine to hit the market, but rest assured that one is one the way.

You can also take precautions to protect you and yours from mosquitoes by implementing traditional mosquito control techniques. Don’t leave any water standing (even a cap full) on your property. Also, make sure all of your screens are intact on your windows and doors to keep them from entering your home during the day.

It’s also worth noting that scientists have developed a genetically modified mosquito to mate with the females that carry the virus. This “mutant mosquito” can stop the spread of the virus by producing offspring that will die, slowing the growth of the population.

Being aware of the Zika virus and taking measures to limit mosquitoes around you is your first line of defense. So take this knowledge and go forth to conquer this virus!