Facts About the Zika Virus

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The Zika virus causes Zika virus disease (Zika), an illness that produces symptoms including fever, rash, and joint pain. While most symptoms are mild, Zika can also cause severe birth defects.

The virus typically infects human hosts through the bite of infected mosquitoes of the Aedes species. The virus can be spread rapidly through mosquito transmission and is becoming more prevalent in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Arm yourself with these important facts about the Zika virus and ways you can protect yourself against the disease.

The Zika Virus Needs a Host to Survive

Like all viruses, the Zika virus cannot survive on its own. It depends on its host in order to replicate. The virus attaches to the cell membrane of the host cell and becomes engulfed by the cell. The virus releases its genome into the host cell's cytoplasm, which instructs cell organelles to produce viral components. More and more copies of the virus are produced until the newly created virus particles break open the cell and are then free to move on and infect other cells. It is thought that the Zika virus initially infects dendritic cells near the site of pathogen exposure. Dendritic cells are white blood cells that are commonly found in tissues located in areas that come in contact with the external environment, such as the skin. The virus then spreads to the lymph nodes and the bloodstream.

The Zika Virus Has a Polyhedral Shape

The Zika virus has a single-stranded RNA genome and is a type of flavivirus, a viral genus which includes West Nile, dengue, yellow fever, and Japanese encephalitis viruses. The viral genome is surrounded by a lipid membrane enveloped in a protein capsid. The icosahedral (polyhedron with 20 faces) capsid serves to protect the viral RNA from damage. Glycoproteins (proteins with a carbohydrate chain attached to them) on the surface of the capsid shell enable the virus to infect cells.

The Zika Virus Can Be Spread Through Sex

The Zika virus can be transmitted by males to their sexual partners. According to the CDC, the virus remains in the semen longer than in blood. The virus is most often spread by infected mosquitoes and can also be transmitted from mother to child during pregnancy or upon delivery. The virus can also potentially be spread through blood transfusions.

The Zika Virus Can Damage the Brain and Nervous System

The Zika virus can damage the brain of a developing fetus resulting in a condition called microcephaly. These babies are born with abnormally small heads. As the fetus brain grows and develops, its growth normally puts pressure on the bones of the skull causing the skull to grow. As the Zika virus infects fetal brain cells, it halts brain growth and development. The lack of pressure due to diminished brain growth causes the skull to collapse on the brain. Most infants born with this condition have severe developmental issues and many die in infancy.

Zika has also been linked to the development of Guillain-Barré syndrome. This is a disease that impacts the nervous system leading to muscle weakness, nerve damage, and occasionally paralysis. The immune system of a person infected with the Zika virus may cause damage to nerves in an attempt to destroy the virus.

There Is No Treatment for Zika

Currently, there is no treatment for Zika disease or vaccine for the Zika virus. Once a person has been infected with the virus, they will likely be protected against future infections. Prevention is currently the best strategy against the Zika virus. This includes protecting yourself against​ mosquito bites by using insect repellent, keeping your arms and legs covered when outdoors, and ensuring that there is no standing water around your home. To prevent transmission from sexual contact, the CDC advises using condoms or abstaining from sex. Pregnant women are advised to avoid travel to countries that are experiencing active Zika outbreaks.

Most People With the Zika Virus Don't Know They Have It

Individuals infected with the Zika virus experience mild symptoms that can last between two to seven days. As reported by the CDC, only 1 in 5 people infected with the virus experience symptoms. As a result, most who are infected don't realize they have the virus. Symptoms of Zika virus infection include fever, rash, muscle and joint pain, conjunctivitis (pink eye), and headache. Zika infection is typically diagnosed through laboratory blood tests.

The Zika Virus Was First Discovered in Uganda

According to reports from the CDC, the Zika virus was initially detected in 1947 in monkeys living in the the Zika Forest of Uganda. Since the discovery of the first human infections in 1952, the virus has spread from the tropical regions of Africa to Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and South America. The current prognosis is that the virus will continue to spread.


  • "Zika Virus" Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated May 12, 2016. http://www.cdc.gov/zika/.
  • Purdue University. "Zika virus structure revealed, a critical advance in the development of treatments." ScienceDaily, 31 March 2016. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/03/160331153938.htm.