Remember when the West Nile outbreak was the biggest story on your television? Well, that's old news. Now there's a new mosquito-borne virus to worry about – and it's called the Zika virus. You've probably heard of it – after all, scientists and reporters both keep harping on the potential dangers of contracting it. This virus really may be something to worry about. The Zika virus isn't brand new. It was first discovered in 1947 in a monkey from the Zika forest in Uganda. For decades, the disease – which was transmitted from Aedes mosquitoes – only afflicted these primates. However, in 2007, the Zika virus had its first human outbreak in the Pacific islands. Now, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), it's spreading explosively throughout the world.
It's true – the Zika virus is spreading far and fast. What is it, exactly? In humans, the Zika virus, caused by mosquito bites, leads to flu-like symptoms such as rash, fever, joint and muscle pain and conjunctivitis. The incubation period is unknown. In most cases, the virus isn't severe – but for some populations, it can have dire consequences. For example, pregnant women infected with the Zika virus have a high risk of giving birth to children with microcephaly – a condition of premature brain development. As of Feb. 1, the disease, transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, has afflicted 29 countries. So far, two dozen travel-related cases have appeared in the United States. Don't panic quite yet. Mosquitoes are dormant during winter, so the transmission of the virus is on hold for now. However, if you believe in Groundhog Day, you probably know that Punxsutawney Phil didn't see his shadow this year, and that means rising temperatures are coming soon. While higher temperatures are a welcome change for anyone who's not a snow bunny, they also mean more mosquitoes – and a higher threat of Zika.
So What's the Deal With These Mosquitoes?
Here's the science: While those pesky Ae. aegypti mosquitoes are the primary culprit of the Zika virus, they're not the only ones that can infect you. The Aedes albopictus species poses a threat of transmitting the Zika virus, too. What's the difference between them? Basically, the insects from both species will bite you, but each one has its own set of characteristics. Here's the lowdown:
- Lay Terminology. OK, this doesn't matter too much, but it's a little bit of knowledge if you want to keep up with the news and sound smart to your friends. The Ae. aegypti are known as the yellow-fever mosquito. Ae. albopictus are the Asian tiger mosquito. Now let's talk about where they each are and what they do.
- Distribution. The theory is the Ae. aegypti – the yellow-fever biters – originated in Africa, although they've migrated globally through tropical and subtropical parts of the world. Of all species of mosquitoes, they have the highest capacity to transmit viruses. Their current distribution is in approximately 10 U.S. states. The Ae. albopictus mosquitoes are a little more ubiquitous, although they're less frequent carriers of the virus. They still have the potential to be dangerous however. They are thought to have originated in Asia, and they've evolved to survive in cooler temperatures than the Ae. aegypti bugs. They populate approximately 20 states, so even though they carry the virus less often, when they do, they're more abound.
- Habitat. The Ae. aegypti thrive in urban areas, without much vegetation. The Ae. albopictus – those Asian tigers – grow best in thickets with a lot of vegetation.
- Type of Bite. This is probably what you care about most. A mosquito bite, whether it carries the Zika virus or not, is never fun. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has labeled the Ae. aegypti as a sneaky biter, while the Ae. albopictus is labeled as aggressive. So you may just itch a bit more when you're bitten by the latter.
- Target of Bite. Ae. aegypti mosquitoes transmit the Zika virus to humans because they prefer human blood to that of domestic animals. Therefore, people are the primary target of bites. In contrast, Ae. albopictus bugs bite humans and animals equally, which lessens the capacity to transmit the virus. Domestic animals don't carry the same viruses as humans.
- Dengue Vector. Remember Dengue fever? The Ae. aegypti species is the primary vector of that virus in the world. Ae. albopictus mosquitoes are still a carrier, but they're usually a secondary vector. This means they have to go through the primary carrier to actually transmit the disease, so you're less at risk if you're exposed to them.
- Water Storage. Ae. aegypti mosquitoes are more likely to transmit viruses like Zika to you because, when it comes to water consumption, they tend to use human-made containers. The Ae. albopictus species won't refuse water in this form, but they usually prefer water from natural sources like tree holes and bamboo.
- Development. You really can't help it: Mosquitoes are everywhere, but the Ae. aegypti species is most likely to develop near your house. Ae. albopictus, while aggressive, usually develop in water-filled containers outside of households.
What Should I Do to Protect Myself?
No matter what species of mosquito comes out to suck your blood this spring, there are a few things you can do to protect yourself from bites – and from the Zika virus.
- Use Insect Repellent. Repellents give off chemicals that make parts of your body less attractive to insects, including mosquitoes. If you're afraid of chemicals, you can also use natural mosquito repellents such as eucalyptus.
- Wear Long Sleeves. We may be in an era of global warming, but if you know you're going to be outside for a long time and the humidity is high, you can prevent bites by covering up.
- Check Your Screens. You don't have to be outside to be the victim of a mosquito bite. If your window or door screens aren't solid, the pesky insects can get inside your house – and one of the worst things to wake up to is a swollen mosquito bite. Make sure you're covered, indoors and outdoors.
Don't fret just yet. The Zika virus is still rare in the United States, for now. However, if you need a little break from coverage of the presidential debates, it's a topic that would ultimately benefit you to learn about.