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What you need to know about Zika virus

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ZIKA 14 7

It’s very likely by now that you’ll be well aware of Zika virus and the current outbreak in South and Central America, and the Caribbean.

Zika virus causes mild or no symptoms in the majority of those infected, but the virus has been linked to an increase in the number of babies born with microcephaly (a smaller head than expected which can be due to abnormal brain development, and other developmental problems) particularly in Brazil.

The World Health Organisation announced several weeks ago that Zika could reach European countries this summer, but the overall risk to the Europe region is low to moderate.

The types of mosquito that spread Zika virus are not established in the UK. They can be found in other parts of Europe, however, and localised outbreaks of Zika could occur in these areas over the summer months.

With summer holidays fast approaching, this will of course raise questions about travel and holiday plans across Europe and for those travelling to the Olympic Games in Brazil. We want to ensure our advice is clear and that resources are easily accessible to those who need them. We also want to address recent media coverage that reports some athletes have pulled out of the games, and dispel some myths you might have read about Zika.

What is the risk of Zika in the UK currently?

The risk to the UK remains very low and our advice on Zika is primarily for travellers to Zika affected areas.  We will continue to monitor the international situation and you can keep up to date on our website, where we maintain a list of areas with active Zika virus transmission.  New countries are added to this list as soon as their first case has been officially reported. Further advice on what you need to know about Zika virus can be found through NHS Choices.

Do I need to take precautions against Zika if I’m going on holiday in Europe?

To date, no one is known to have caught Zika from mosquito bites in Europe, but the risk might change in the future, so check the list of areas when you are planning your trip.

If you are pregnant or planning pregnancy, or if you have concerns, you should talk to your GP or healthcare provider before you travel. PHE recommends that pregnant women should postpone non-essential travel to areas with active Zika virus transmission until after pregnancy.  If you are the male partner of someone who is pregnant or who is trying to become pregnant you need to be aware of the risks of sexual transmission.

I’ve seen news coverage suggesting it isn’t safe to travel to the Olympic Games in Brazil. How do I protect myself if I am attending?

Brazil does have active transmission of Zika, and the emphasis for those who travel to the Games remains to protect yourself as much as possible from mosquito bites.

The best way to do this is to use mosquito repellent, covering skin with light clothing and using a mosquito net while sleeping. You can get more information on this in our mosquito bite avoidance leaflet for travellers.  We recommend that pregnant women postpone non-essential travel to Zika-affected areas, which currently includes Brazil.

Most people infected with Zika virus have no symptoms. For those who do develop symptoms, Zika virus infection tends to cause a mild, self-limiting illness lasting 2 to 7 days. However, infection is more serious during pregnancy, as it can be associated with serious birth defects.

This risk means that we are advising all pregnant women to postpone all non-essential travel to areas with active Zika transmission, which includes Brazil at the current time.

I have heard that Zika virus can be transmitted sexually. What are the risks and how can I avoid them?

Sexual transmission of Zika virus is known to occur, but appears to be rare. The main concern is about Zika infection occurring at the time of conception and during pregnancy.  If a woman is at risk of getting pregnant, or is planning pregnancy, effective contraception is advised to prevent pregnancy and condom use is advised for a male traveller during vaginal, anal and oral sex, to reduce the risk of transmission.

PHE has advice for different groups on how long precautions need to be followed. Always check for the latest recommendations, as advice may change when new information becomes available.

If you are the male partner of a woman who is pregnant and you are going to the Games, you should use condoms during travel and throughout the duration of the pregnancy, even if you do not develop Zika-like symptoms. Avoiding mosquito bites will also help reduce the risk to you and your partner.

General health and travel advice for people travelling to Rio 2016 is available on NaTHNaC’s Travel Health Pro website.

Some Olympians from other countries have dropped out because they’re worried about Zika. What’s being done to make sure it’s ok to go?

Of course, individuals will make their own decision on travel based on their personal circumstances and with appropriate medical advice.

The Games will be held in Rio's winter when the risk of mosquito borne infections (including Zika) will be at its lowest. In addition, the authorities in Rio are taking significant measures to tackle the issue and further reduce the risk.

The World Health Organisation's Emergency Committee on Zika (a committee of international experts in this field) recently considered the risks to the Olympic and Paralympic Games in detail and concluded that, given the low risk, there should be no general restrictions on travel to Rio and no changes to the arrangements for the Games.

The Committee has emphasised the importance of ensuring that all those travelling to the Games are fully informed on the risks of Zika virus infection, the personal protective measures that should be taken to reduce those risks, and the action that they should take if they suspect they have been infected.

All visitors to Zika affected areas should adhere to the internationally agreed travel advice that recommends that pregnant women should not travel to these areas and all other travellers should take strict mosquito bite precautions.

If I am planning a family in the future, should I avoid going to areas with active Zika transmission?

Again, we advise women already pregnant to postpone travel to affected areas until after birth. If you are planning to have children and travel to an area with active Zika transmission, this does not mean that all future pregnancies are at risk; attempts to conceive can resume once the period of risk and precautionary measures has ended. You should adhere to advice to avoid becoming pregnant whilst visiting affected areas.

If you become pregnant whilst travelling or within 8 weeks of return, or want to start actively trying and you have concerns, you should speak to your GP or healthcare provider beforehand.

Not all cases of Zika infection in pregnancy will lead to microcephaly or other developmental problems, but we urge people to avoid infection during pregnancy. Current recommendations on preventing infection during pregnancy are outlined below, but always check our website for the latest recommendations.

Can Zika virus affect children? Should they travel to affected areas?

While children can also be infected by Zika virus, advice is the same as for adults. Mosquito bite avoidance should be followed and you should make sure your child is protected if they are travelling with you. The risk of defects is only linked to foetuses, not babies already born or children. If you are a parent and you are travelling to an affected area, this will not have an adverse effect on your child when you return.

Can Zika be caught from mosquitoes in the UK?

Zika cannot be caught from mosquitoes in the UK. We expect to see small numbers of Zika virus infections in travellers returning to the UK, but the risk to the wider population is very low, since the mosquitoes that carry Zika virus are not found in the UK and the climate is not suitable for them to survive. In the majority of people infected abroad who actually develop symptoms, the illness tends to be mild and short lived.

How can I stay up to date?

By checking our website you can stay up to date on Zika news and advice. Travel advice for individual countries can be found on NaTHNaC’s Travel Health Pro website. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has also published useful general advice on how travellers to Brazil can Stay Ahead of the Games.

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