The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention have made several recent declarations regarding the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne virus that has been linked to severe birth defects in babies born to women infected by the virus while pregnant.

Some patients who have been infected with the Zika virus have also been diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, an uncommon sickness of the nervous system in which a person’s own immune system damages the nerve cells, causing muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis.

The CDC recently issued a travel alert for people traveling to regions and certain countries where Zika virus is reported to have active transmission. The main areas of concern are Central and South America. For more information about specific countries with active transmission, visit www.cdc.gov/zika/geo

According to the CDC, the Zika virus is spread to people through mosquito bites, and the most common symptoms of the virus are fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis (red eyes). Usually mild with symptoms lasting several days to a week, the Zika virus rarely requires hospitalization.

While the Zika virus poses no immediate threat, individuals traveling to countries with active transmission are encouraged to take certain precautions to protect themselves against Zika (and other mosquito-borne illnesses such as Malaria, Dengue Fever and Chikungunya).

With the increasing number of cases being reported in Central and South America, the number of Zika virus cases among travelers visiting or returning to the U.S. will likely increase. These increased cases will likely result in local spread of the virus from human-to-mosquito-to-human contact in some areas of the continental U.S., so it is important when traveling to these infected areas to use protection against mosquito bites.

The Zika virus can also be spread through sexual transmission, so travelers going to Zika-affected areas should use condoms for all sexual contact.

Travelers to countries with active transmission of the virus can help protect themselves (and other mosquito-borne illnesses such as Malaria, Dengue Fever and Chikungunya) by taking certain precautions

The Zika virus has been linked to a specific birth defect called microcephaly. Due to this connection, the CDC issued travel guidance for pregnant women and women trying to conceive urging these women to avoid traveling to places where the virus is being spread. These high-risk individuals should continue to review travel alerts for updates as more countries will likely be added to the list.

If you are concerned about exposure to the Zika virus or intend to travel to a country with active transmission of the virus, contact a specialist in travel medicine, such as the USC Allergy, Immunization & Travel clinic (make an appointment by calling 803-777-9511). Pregnant women or women planning to become pregnant should consult with their OB/GYN. Make an appointment with the USC Women’s Care clinic by visiting www.sc.edu/myhealthspace or calling 803-777-8920.