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Everything we now know about the Zika virus and preventing it

Meagan Morris is an entertainment and lifestyle journalist living in New York City. In addition to SheKnows, Morris contributes to many publications including The New York Times, Yahoo! News, PopEater, NBC New York and Spinner. Follow he...

What you need to know about the Zika virus to date

"If you live in an area where Zika is spreading and you're pregnant, please protect yourself against mosquitoes. That's the bottom line," Tom Frieden, Director of the Centers for Disease Control, told CNN.

The announcement comes as more cases of the mosquito-borne virus have been confirmed in the United States, with all of those cases being confirmed in people who have recently traveled to the affected areas — or had sex with someone infected with the virus.

An outbreak of the virus in Brazil has been blamed for birth defects in thousands of babies born within the past year — 404 of those confirmed cases of microcephaly (the birth defect connected to Zika) in newborns have been since November 2015. Fifteen babies have died from microcephaly since then, with five linked to Zika and another 56 under investigation. Brazilian authorities are investigating at least 3,670 cases. There were only 147 cases of Zika reported in all of 2014.

More: Microcephaly: What moms need to know about the condition caused by Zika

Zika has also prompted officials in Brazil and Central America to advise women against getting pregnant.

The first case of Zika in the United States was confirmed in January on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

"The mother likely had Zika infection when she was residing in Brazil in May 2015 and her newborn acquired the infection in the womb," a rep for Hawaii's health department said, according to CNN. "Neither the baby nor the mother are infectious, and there was never a risk of transmission in Hawaii."

However, there is some worry that there's the potential for infected individuals to spread the virus through mosquitoes in the United States. As of June 30, 2016, there have been over 900 confirmed cases of Zika in the U.S., 324 of those in New York alone, according to the state's health department. Of those 324, 233 were in New York City, many of those in people who recently traveled from the Dominican Republic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also confirmed that as of June 23, seven babies have been born with birth defects as a result of the mosquito-borne disease, alone with five lost pregnancies.

So what exactly is the Zika virus?

The Zika virus is spread by mosquitoes and is known to cause birth defects in newborns, including microcephaly, a congenital brain condition that causes underdevelopment of the brain or head, or both. It can also cause babies to be born with smaller-than-normal heads or Down syndrome. Some have trouble receiving enough oxygen in the brain and, as shown in Brazil, it can be fatal.

More: Blogger shares shocking hospital photo to warn against binge drinking

Zika spread through the bites of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, a common insect found in subtropical climates known for spreading all sorts of nastiness, including the dengue and yellow fevers and the Chikungunya virus. Zika is a somewhat common virus that typically brings on minor symptoms.

"We know that four out of five people with Zika will have no symptoms," Frieden told CNN. "So our new guidance says pregnant women without symptoms can be offered testing between two to 12 weeks after travel."

Will there be a large Zika outbreak in the United States?

The CDC is still careful to avoid saying that Zika will be a huge problem in the United States. However, the health body is recommending that pregnant women postpone all travel to the following regions: Bolivia, Brazil, Cape Verde, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Saint Martin, Suriname, Samoa, Venezuela and Puerto Rico. If you have been to these areas and were pregnant at the time, you should seek screening for the virus.

If travel is unavoidable, the CDC recommends taking plenty of precautions to keep mosquitoes away.

The Brazilian government recently confirmed they detected active Zika virus in saliva and urine, leading many to believe it can easily be transmitted through those mediums. However, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told NPR in an interview that traces of the virus in saliva and urine does not necessarily mean it can be transmitted that way. "There's obviously a theoretical possibility, but there's no evidence that it's happened or that it will happen," he said.

So, your main concern should still be with mosquitos and sexual transmission.

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As for the United States, the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are already found in many parts of the mainland, but as of now you're more likely to get other illnesses from the bites. Still, there is no vaccine — and one isn't on the horizon anytime soon — so the CDC is recommending that men avoid sex with pregnant women who have been anywhere around the affected areas.

The British Fertility Society also recommends that people who have traveled to Zika-affected areas should not try to conceive, donate eggs or sperm, or have fertility treatments for 28 days post-exposure.

And all of us should be using effective repellents — especially those in states with confirmed cases. Consumer Reports found that the most effective repellents are ones that contain high proportions of picardin or Deet. The best scoring repellent was Repel Lemon Eucalyptus, but others by Repel, Sawyer, Off! Deep Woods and Natrapel scored high as well.

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