"Not much is known about how the virus crosses into the fetus, or how it gets into the brain, but we do know it can have some serious consequences."

The Zika virus gained international attention in 2015 and 2016, but it is not a new or unique disease, and in most cases, it is actually a very mild ailment similar to the common cold.

Zika was the topic of this month's First Friday talk at The Cedars Friday afternoon. First Friday is part of a partnership between The Cedars and McPherson College to provide educational seminars to the community.

Jonathan Frye, Ph.D., gave the presentation titled "The Epidemic Spread of the Zika Virus.”

Frye is an ecologist and natural science professor at Mac College, where he has worked for 23 years. Though not a doctor, he has taught classes in epidemiology—the study of how diseases spread. He spoke about the dangers, misnomers, myths and facts about the virus.

Although Zika has become a household name and infections have been reported across the United States, most are from people who contracted the disease while traveling and only 19 cases have been confirmed in Kansas from 2015 to 2017. So far, only parts of south Florida and Brownsville, Texas have reported locally-contracted infections of Zika virus in the United States.

While Zika has reached epidemic levels, it's not usually deadly. Symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes, as well as muscle pain and headache, and usually last several days to a week. Symptoms are rarely severe enough to warrant hospitalization, and deaths from Zika are rare, resulting from other complicating factors.

Zika is related to diseases such as dengue fever, yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis, and West Nile, and was first identified in 1947.

"There's this whole family of diseases caused by a family of viruses,” Frye said. "They share some common features, but have slight differences in how they work."

The Zika virus is named after the Zika forest in Uganda, where it was first identified in monkeys. The first human case was reported in 1952 in Nigeria. The virus spread east through tropical regions until it took the international stage in 2015 and 2016.

"It wasn't an epidemic at first, because there were so few cases," Frye said.

The Zika virus is transmitted mainly through the bites of infected mosquitoes. These mosquitoes typically lay eggs in standing water, prefer to bite humans and are most aggressive during the day, but can also bite at night.

Mosquitoes don't travel far, but people do. With almost 216 million annual travelers from Zika-infected areas to the United States, the virus had plenty of opportunities to reach new populations. Local mosquitoes pick up the virus by biting infected individuals, and are then able to spread the virus to others they bite. A person does not have to show symptoms of Zika to pass the disease to another person.

Zika is, however, much more dangerous to unborn children. The virus can be transferred from one person to another during sexual intercourse, and from a pregnant woman into the fetus.

"It can happen any time during pregnancy," Frye said. "Not much is known about how the virus crosses into the fetus, or how it gets into the brain, but we do know it can have some serious consequences."

Infection during pregnancy can cause birth defects. These include microcephaly, in which a baby's head is smaller than expected and can result in smaller brains that do not develop properly; decreased brain tissue and brain damage; damage to the back of the eye; joints with limited range of motion; and too much muscle tone that restricts body movement.

Zika is also strongly linked to Guillain-Barré Syndrome, an uncommon sickness in which a person's own immune system damages nerve cells, causing muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis. It can also be a factor in miscarriages and stillbirths.

According to available evidence, Zika poses no risk to future children once the virus has cleared a person's system. Men should wait six to nine months after travel before trying to conceive, and women should wait at least eight weeks. A person is likely protected from future infections after being infected once.

"It's also a good idea to avoid giving blood while infected," Frye said.

So far, there have been no cases of Zika being transferred to infants through breastfeeding, nor have there been reports in the United States of people getting Zika from a blood transfusion. Blood transfusion infections have been reported elsewhere.

There is no specific treatment for Zika. Those who have it should treat the symptoms, get plenty of rest, drink fluids to prevent dehydration and take medicine like acetaminophen or paracetamol to reduce headache and fever. Aspirin and similar drugs are not recommended until dengue has been ruled out.

Pregnant women and anyone who plans to have a baby in the near future should avoid travel to places where Zika is prominent. The Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization release regular travel advisories for those concerned about contracting Zika.

Those who live in or have recently traveled to an area with Zika should see a doctor or health care provider, especially pregnant women or people who intend to have a child.

The best way to prevent Zika infection is to prevent mosquito bites. Strategies include wearing clothing that covers the arms and legs; covering cribs, strollers and baby carriers with mosquito nets; using and maintaining window screens; and regularly cleaning and emptying any sources of standing water, where mosquitoes lay eggs. Using using insect repellant is also a good defense strategy.

"We know DEET works, other natural remedies are unproven, so use what you know is effective," Frye said. "Be proactive in your defense."