The threat of the Zika epidemic continues to dominate headlines as health officials determine how travelers and Americans in vulnerable U.S. cities can be best protected against the mosquito-borne virus. 

The 2015 outbreak that originated in Brazil has resulted in the World Health Organization issuing a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, and it remains a health threat to those traveling to Central or South America. 

But what is the threat for Americans and is there a higher risk for aging adults? We break down everything you need to know about Zika virus below. 


What is Zika? 

Zika is a virus that is spread most commonly through the bite of a certain species of mosquito (Aedes). In addition to transmission through a mosquito bite, people can contract Zika through sexual intercourse with an infected man, or an infected pregnant woman can pass the virus along to her fetus. The risk the virus poses to fetuses has been the top concern of health officials since Zika can result in a devastating birth effect that causes a child to be born with an abnormally small head (microcephaly). 

Often, a person who has Zika does not experience any symptoms or has very mild symptoms, so some people may not even know they’ve been infected. Symptoms may include joint pain, eye redness (conjunctivitis), fever and/or rash. A small percentage of infections lead to Guillain-Barre syndrome. 

Currently there is no cure or vaccine for the Zika virus, and there is not yet a widely available diagnostic test. 

How is the U.S. being impacted and where? 

As of June 2016, no locally acquired cases resulting from a mosquito bite have been reported in the U.S., but U.S. health officials are bracing for cases from mosquito bites in vulnerable cities. Risk analysis for U.S. cities is based on disease outbreak history, travel from Zika-infected areas, rainfall, temperatures and socioeconomic factors. 

According to Advisory Board, at least 50 cities in the southern U.S. could face the threat of Zika during warm months. Five of the highest-risk cities are in Florida: 

  • Miami
  • Orlando
  • Tampa
  • Jacksonville
  • Tallahassee

To assess your risk, use this interactive quiz from The Washington Post, and visit Advisory Board for the complete list of high and moderate-risk locations as well as a list of socioeconomic and other factors that impact someone’s risk of contracting Zika. 

How might Zika affect older adults differently? 

In older adults, researchers have discovered a link between Zika and Guillain-Barre, a syndrome that causes the body’s immune system to damage the nerves and results in gradual muscle weakening that plateaus and requires treatment. The AARP reports that CDC researchers are studying the link in Puerto Rico to better understand the risk. 

What can I do to protect myself? 

The CDC recommends that individuals: 

To read about bite prevention for travelers, read the full prevention guidelines from the CDC.

By Margaret Schmidt