Zika virus is a mosquito-borne flavivirus that was first identified in Uganda in 1947 in monkeys. It was later identified in humans in 1952 in Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania. Zika virus disease has since been recorded in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific. The virus is named after the Zika Forest in Uganda where it was first isolated. Zika is primarily transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito, particularly Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus. In addition to mosquito bites, the virus can also be transmitted through sexual contact, blood transfusions, and from mother to fetus during pregnancy.

Classification and Structure

Zika virus is a member of the Flaviviridae family and the Flavivirus genus. This family includes other notable viruses such as dengue, yellow fever, West Nile, and Japanese encephalitis viruses. The Zika virus is an enveloped, single-stranded RNA virus with a positive-sense genome approximately 10.7 kilobases in length. Its genome encodes a single polyprotein that is subsequently cleaved into three structural proteins (C, prM, and E) and seven non-structural proteins (NS1, NS2A, NS2B, NS3, NS4A, NS4B, and NS5). The E protein is particularly important as it is involved in the virus’s entry into host cells and is a major target for the host immune response.


Since its discovery, Zika virus has caused multiple outbreaks around the world, with the most significant occurring in 2015-2016 in the Americas. This outbreak was associated with a sharp increase in cases of microcephaly and other neurological disorders among newborns, which brought global attention to the virus. The widespread presence of Aedes mosquitoes in tropical and subtropical regions facilitated the rapid spread of Zika virus across continents.


The transmission of Zika virus can occur through several primary mechanisms: mosquito bites, sexual transmission, blood transfusion, and vertical transmission from mother to fetus. Each of these transmission routes plays a significant role in the spread and epidemiology of the virus.

1. Mosquito Bites

Primary Vectors: The primary vectors for Zika virus are Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes. These species are also vectors for dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever viruses. They are commonly found in tropical and subtropical regions around the world.

Vector Biology: Aedes mosquitoes typically breed in stagnant water and are most active during the early morning and late afternoon. These mosquitoes prefer to feed on humans, which increases the efficiency of Zika virus transmission in populated areas.

Transmission Cycle: The transmission cycle begins when a female Aedes mosquito bites a person infected with Zika virus. The virus enters the mosquito’s midgut, where it replicates before spreading to the mosquito’s salivary glands. Once the virus is in the salivary glands, the mosquito can transmit the virus to other humans through its bite.

Epidemiological Factors: The prevalence of Aedes mosquitoes, climatic conditions favoring mosquito breeding, and human behaviors such as outdoor activities during peak mosquito activity times are key factors influencing the transmission of Zika virus.

2. Sexual Transmission

Transmission Mechanics: Sexual transmission of Zika virus can occur through vaginal, anal, and oral sex. The virus can be present in semen, vaginal fluids, and other bodily secretions.

Duration of Viral Presence: Zika virus RNA has been detected in semen for prolonged periods, sometimes up to several months after the initial infection. This extended presence in semen means that men can transmit the virus to their sexual partners long after their own symptoms have resolved.

Epidemiological Impact: Sexual transmission adds a layer of complexity to the control of Zika virus, as it can continue to spread even in the absence of active mosquito-borne transmission. It also necessitates the inclusion of sexual health education and preventive measures such as condom use in Zika virus control strategies.

3. Blood Transfusion

Risk of Transmission: Zika virus can be transmitted through blood transfusions from infected donors. This mode of transmission poses a risk, especially in areas with ongoing outbreaks where the likelihood of infected individuals donating blood is higher.

Screening Measures: Blood banks in regions affected by Zika virus outbreaks implement rigorous screening procedures to detect Zika virus RNA in donated blood. These measures are crucial to ensure the safety of the blood supply.

Preventive Actions: In areas experiencing Zika outbreaks, it is recommended to defer blood donations from individuals who have recently traveled to affected regions or who have symptoms consistent with Zika virus infection.

4. Vertical Transmission (Mother to Fetus)

Mechanism: Vertical transmission of Zika virus occurs when an infected pregnant woman transmits the virus to her fetus. This can happen at any stage of pregnancy but is most detrimental during the first and second trimesters.

Congenital Zika Syndrome: Vertical transmission can lead to severe birth defects, collectively known as congenital Zika syndrome (CZS). The most notable of these is microcephaly, a condition where the baby’s head is significantly smaller than expected, indicating abnormal brain development.

Other Birth Defects: In addition to microcephaly, CZS includes other neurological impairments such as intracranial calcifications, hearing and vision defects, and joint deformities. These conditions can lead to long-term developmental issues and disabilities.

Preventive Measures: Pregnant women in areas with active Zika virus transmission are advised to take stringent measures to avoid mosquito bites and practice safe sex. Travel advisories often recommend that pregnant women avoid traveling to regions with Zika outbreaks.

Clinical Presentation

Zika virus infection is typically mild and often asymptomatic. When symptoms do occur, they usually appear within 2-7 days after being bitten by an infected mosquito and include:

  • Fever: Low-grade fever is common.
  • Rash: A maculopapular rash that spreads across the body.
  • Joint Pain: Especially in the small joints of the hands and feet.
  • Conjunctivitis: Redness of the eyes without pus.
  • Muscle Pain: Generalized muscle pain or myalgia.
  • Headache: Mild to moderate headaches are frequently reported.

These symptoms usually last for several days to a week. Severe disease requiring hospitalization is uncommon, and fatalities are rare.


Diagnosis of Zika virus infection is based on a combination of clinical signs and symptoms, patient history, and laboratory tests. The primary diagnostic methods include:

  • Molecular Tests: Reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) is used to detect Zika virus RNA in blood, urine, or other body fluids. This test is most effective during the first week of illness.
  • Serological Tests: Detection of Zika virus-specific IgM antibodies and neutralizing antibodies. Cross-reactivity with other flaviviruses such as dengue can complicate serological diagnosis.
  • Plaque Reduction Neutralization Test (PRNT): This test can help distinguish Zika virus infection from other flavivirus infections by measuring the level of virus-specific neutralizing antibodies.

Treatment and Prevention

There is no specific antiviral treatment for Zika virus infection. Management focuses on relieving symptoms and includes:

  • Rest: Adequate rest to help the body recover.
  • Hydration: Drinking fluids to prevent dehydration.
  • Pain Relief: Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or paracetamol for fever and pain. Aspirin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) should be avoided until dengue infection is ruled out to reduce the risk of bleeding.

Preventive measures are crucial for controlling Zika virus transmission:

  • Mosquito Control: Reducing mosquito populations through elimination of breeding sites, larviciding, and adulticiding.
  • Personal Protection: Using insect repellents, wearing long-sleeved clothing, and using mosquito nets.
  • Safe Sex Practices: Using condoms or abstaining from sex, especially for men who have traveled to areas with Zika outbreaks.
  • Blood Donation Safety: Screening blood donations for Zika virus RNA in areas with active transmission.
  • Travel Advisories: Issuing advisories to inform travelers about Zika risks and preventive measures.

Global Impact and Response

The 2015-2016 Zika virus outbreak in the Americas had significant global implications. The rapid spread of the virus and its association with severe birth defects led to widespread public health concerns and mobilized international response efforts.

  • Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC): In February 2016, the WHO declared Zika virus a PHEIC due to the clusters of microcephaly and neurological disorders associated with the outbreak.
  • Research and Development: Accelerated research efforts focused on understanding Zika virus transmission, pathogenesis, and developing diagnostic tools, treatments, and vaccines.
  • International Collaboration: Global health organizations, governments, and research institutions collaborated to address the outbreak, enhance surveillance, and improve public health preparedness.

Zika virus is a significant public health threat, primarily transmitted through Aedes mosquito bites, with additional transmission routes including sexual contact, blood transfusion, and vertical transmission from mother to fetus. The virus can cause mild symptoms in most individuals, but its potential to cause severe congenital anomalies underscores the importance of effective prevention and control measures. International collaboration, enhanced surveillance, and public health interventions are essential for mitigating the impact of Zika virus and protecting vulnerable populations. Continued research and development efforts are crucial for advancing our understanding of Zika virus and improving strategies for its prevention and control.

Last Update: June 9, 2024