Zika virus: Frequently asked questions

Resource date: Jul 2016

In early 2016, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of Zika virus an international public health emergency. Currently, UNFPA is helping lead global efforts to promote widespread information about Zika virus and the right of women to protect themselves against the infection through the use of contraceptives, including emergency contraception. This is an essential component of responding to this emergency. Below are answers to some frequently asked question regarding Zika virus.

Aedes Aegyptus mosquito ©Muhammad Mahdi Karim


Where does infection with the Zika virus occur?

The virus occurs mainly in tropical areas with large populations of the Aedes mosquito. However, person-to-person transmission can occur outside mosquito-prone areas, such as if a person infected with Zika travels to location without the virus, then transmits the illness to a sex partner.

According to the World Health Organization, by 6 July 2016, 65 countries and territories had reportedly experienced vector-borne Zika virus transmission since 2007. Of these, 62 had evidence of vector-borne Zika virus transmission since 2015. Eleven countries have experienced person-to-person transmission of Zika virus, likely due to sexual transmission.

How is the Zika virus being transmitted?

Most Zika virus transmission occurs when people in a tropical region are bitten by an infected Aedes Aegyptus mosquito, the same type of mosquito that spreads dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever. The Aedes albopictus mosquito can also transmit the virus; this mosquito survives in regions with cooler temperatures. Zika can also be transmitted through sex. Transmission from pregnant women to their fetuses has also been documented.

What are the symptoms of Zika?

The most common symptoms of Zika virus infection are fever and rash. Other symptoms include muscle and joint pain, malaise, or conjunctivitis. Symptoms typically begin within a week of being bitten by an infected mosquito. They are similar to the symptoms of dengue fever and chikungunya, and usually last two to seven days.

But many people will not develop any symptoms at all. They may not know they have been infected at all.

What are the complications of Zika?

There is scientific consensus that Zika virus is linked to a serious birth defect of the brain called microcephaly, a condition in which a baby’s head is smaller than expected when compared to babies of the same sex and age, and other poor pregnancy outcomes in babies born to mothers who were infected with Zika virus while pregnant. There is also consensus that zika is a cause of Guillain-Barré syndrome.

Should pregnant women or women with the potential to become pregnant be concerned about Zika?

Women who do not want to become pregnant at this time should have access to contraceptives, including emergency contraceptives. Those who want to become pregnant should be monitored and advised to increase preventive measures.

What should I do if I am pregnant or planning to become pregnant and live in an area with Zika virus outbreak?

The World Health Organization urges women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant to seek prenatal care that includes Zika virus information and monitoring of their pregnancy and to follow their doctors’ recommendations.

Pregnant women who have been exposed to Zika virus should be counselled and followed for birth outcomes based on the best available information and national practice and policies.

To date, there is no evidence that Zika virus can be transmitted through breastfeeding.

Can infection with Zika virus be prevented?

There is currently no vaccine to protect against infection with the Zika virus. Therefore, everyone at risk, including women of childbearing age and pregnant women, should avoid exposure to mosquito bites, for example, by wearing long sleeves and trousers, using insecticide-treated mosquito nets and using insect repellents indicated by health authorities and according to the instructions on the label. It is also important to identify and eliminate potential mosquito breeding sites in every home and its surroundings by emptying, cleaning, or covering containers that can hold water, such as buckets, flower pots or tyres.

Special attention and help should be given to those who may not be able to protect themselves adequately, such as young children, the sick, or elderly.

Because of the evidence that the Zika virus can be transmitted sexually, people living in areas with Zika transmission should have access to condoms and be counselled on using them consistently and correctly. Men and women returning from an area where Zika is curculating should use condoms or abstain from sex for at least eight weeks, according to the World Health Organization.

Are there available treatments for Zika infection or microcephaly?

There is no specific treatment for Zika infection other than to alleviate symptoms. Women who suspect their newborns have Zika infection should see a local health professional. Once a baby is diagnosed with microcephaly, a multidisciplinary health team should begin a process of follow-up and monitoring of the child.

What are the rights of women who have the potential to be exposed to Zika virus?

Decisions about whether, when, or how often to become pregnant are a matter of human rights. Women should therefore have access to information, counselling and contraceptive methods, including emergency contraception and female and male condoms, to prevent sexual transmission of the virus.

In all cases, women, including those who are pregnant, should be able to access the full range of sexual and reproductive health services in accordance with national laws and policies.

UNFPA continues to stress the need to uphold the basic rights of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children in full alignment with the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, which governs all of our work.

Pregnant women in areas affected by the Zika virus should have access to comprehensive prenatal care at all times.

What is UNFPA doing to fight the Zika virus outbreak and promote the human rights of women?

UNFPA is developing information kits directed to service providers and the public on what the Zika virus infection is and how to prevent it, particularly among women who plan to conceive and pregnant women. UNFPA is also working with national partners to increase access to contraceptives to help women make choices about their fertility and to condoms to reduce potential risk of sexual transmission of the Zika virus. In addition, UNFPA is engaging with partners on a coordinated response from a reproductive rights perspective.

This page was originally published in February 2016. It was updated in July 2016. 

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