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Frequently asked questions about the Zika virus (answered in plain English)

Most people have heard of Zika, but with so many reports and news articles about the virus, it can be hard to pick out the answers you're looking for.

What are the risks of Zika? How can you protect yourself from it? Is there a Zika vaccine?

We've answered the most common questions about the Zika virus.

What is Zika?

Zika is a virus transmitted by Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes, which are usually found in tropical regions.

How is the Zika virus transmitted?

The Zika virus is transmitted by:

  • a bite from the Aedes aegypti or Aedes albopictus mosquito (this is the most common way to get the virus)
  • unprotected sexual intercourse with an infected man or woman
  • an infected mother to her unborn child

There is also speculation that Zika can be passed on via blood transfusion. One study from French Polynesia that was conducted during the 2014 outbreak, found that Zika was present in three per cent of blood samples.

What are the symptoms of the Zika virus?

Only about one in five people with the Zika virus will develop symptoms. Most people with Zika are unaware that they have been infected.

Where symptoms are present, they tend to be mild such as conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain, skin rashes or headaches. The symptoms don't tend to last more than a week, and can usually be treated with fluids, rest and painkillers.

Which countries are affected by the Zika virus?

Cases of the Zika virus have been reported in 76 countries, mainly in Latin America and the Caribbean. The largest outbreak was in Brazil, which had 400,000 suspected cases of the Zika virus in 2015/16. A full list of affected countries can be found here.

Why is the Zika virus dangerous for pregnant women?

In May 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed a link between women who are infected with the Zika virus during pregnancy and birth defects.

The most common birth defect associated with Zika is microcephaly, which means being born with an abnormally small head. It can affect the brain development of the child and lead to learning disabilities.

What is Guillain-Barré syndrome and is it caused by Zika?

Guillain-Barré syndrome happens when someone's immune system attacks their nervous system. This can cause muscle weakness and tingling sensations, particularly in the legs, arms or face.

In about 20 to 30 per cent of cases, Guillain-Barré syndrome affects the chest muscles, which can make it hard to breathe. In severe cases, it can lead to paralysis or death. However, it's rare for this to happen. Most cases of the condition last only a few weeks.

There has been an increase in cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome in areas affected by the Zika virus. WHO has therefore determined that the Zika virus is a trigger for Guillain-Barré syndrome.

Is there a Zika vaccine?

Early trials of a Zika vaccine started in January 2017. However, developing a vaccine takes time, as researchers need to be certain that it's safe for people to use, and that it works. WHO estimates it will be about two to three years before a Zika vaccine is released.

How can I protect myself from the Zika virus?

If you're in an affected area, the best way to protect yourself against Zika is to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes:

  • use mosquito nets and screens when you're sleeping
  • keep your skin covered with clothing
  • use insect repellent containing DEET, IR3535, aminopropionic acid or KBR3023
  • empty or cover containers of standing water as stagnant water provides the perfect conditions for mosquito breeding

How can I protect myself from getting Zika through sexual transmission?

According to the CDC's Interim Guidelines for Prevention of Sexual Transmission of Zika Virus – United States, 2016, there is evidence that the Zika virus can be sexually transmitted by a man or woman to their partner(s). This is of particular concern during pregnancy. If your sexual partner lives in or has recently travelled to or from an affected area, you should abstain from sex, or use condoms, for at least six months. If you or your partner is pregnant, you should practise safe sex or abstain from sex until your baby's born.

Is it safe for pregnant women to travel to areas affected by the Zika virus?

Advice from WHO is that pregnant women should avoid travelling to areas where there have been reported cases of Zika. If you have any doubts about travelling or working in an affected country or territory, contact your private medical insurance company who will be able to give you the most up to date advice for your destination.

If there is a chance you may have Zika, contact your private medical insurance company, who can explain the tests available to you.

What is Aetna International doing?

Aetna International constantly monitors reports of infectious diseases including the Zika virus. We are in contact with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), U.S. federal agencies, state and local health departments, health care providers, medical evacuation providers, and others so that we can appropriately promote awareness and prevention.

Does Aetna International cover diagnosis and treatment of Zika? Are there any limits in place?
Aetna International will cover treatment for members diagnosed with Zika, in accordance with the terms and conditions of our plans. Our medical policy will follow the CDC protocols established for this infection.

We will closely monitor changes in the treatment protocol and follow the guidance of health authorities on any treatment options they determine to be the best standard of care.

Where can I learn more about Zika?

Travellers should stay informed about Zika virus and other mosquito-borne diseases and consult their local health or travel authorities if they are concerned.

For more information, please visit:


Is Zika a new virus?

No. The Zika virus was first identified in 1947, in a monkey from the Zika forest in Uganda. Five years later, the first case was reported of the Zika virus being transmitted to humans. Although outbreaks have previously occurred in Asia, Africa and French Polynesia, the outbreak that started in Brazil in 2015 is the largest on record.

For more information on treatment plans and cover for infectious diseases, including Zika, or if you're planning an overseas trip and want advice on helping to protect your health and well-being before, during and afterwards, please contact one of Aetna International's expert sales consultants who will be happy to help.

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