For much of the United States, it's peak mosquito season. As the threat of the Zika virus has crept ever northward from South America, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been quick to educate the public about the risks of Zika. Much of the public health discussion about Zika has concerned pregnant women — but what about children? Can kids get Zika forever? It's a valid question, as it seems like the public has heard increasingly alarming reports about the spread of the virus over the course of this year alone.
Is Zika the world's most awful gift that keeps on giving, and more importantly, how does Zika affect kids? Many parents — especially families living in the Southern-most regions of the United States where the Aedes aegytpi mosquito lives — are rightfully concerned about whether Zika will be a public health crisis they have to worry about every year. And what happens if your child does get infected by Zika: Do they build immunity? Or can you be infected again and again over time? As a parent worried about Zika and my kid, I get it: I've been asking myself these same questions, too. Unfortunately, the answers aren't so cut and dry.
While Zika has been around for about 50 years in both Asia and Africa, this particular outbreak appears to be spreading through communities that have little to no immunity to the Zika virus. It's only since the Zika-linked microcephaly crisis in Brazil's newborns that scientists have become more interested in the virus. What that means for parents is that little is known about how Zika affects children.
Here's what experts do know: Out of every five people that get infected with Zika, only one will actually show symptoms. So, there's a very real chance a kid could be infected with Zika and parents wouldn't know it. Those children who do show signs of infection will have symptoms similar to adults: fever, rash, joint pain, and general malaise. "There haven't been any reports that suggest Zika causes more severe symptoms in children or infants," said David Vu, a Stanford University specialist in pediatric infectious diseases, when speaking to NPR. But as so little is known about Zika and children right now, there's no word on what, if any long term effects Zika could have on children.
Additionally, Zika has been linked to Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a devastating neurological disorder that can cause paralysis that lasts from days, to weeks, to months (and in some rare cases, permanent paralysis). According to researchers and what is known thus far about Zika, children are very unlikely to contract Guillain-Barré Syndrome. But parents should know that, if their child has been exposed to another mosquito-borne illness such as dengue fever, it can make Zika worse.
So, where does this leave parents? Basically, it looks like children will probably develop immunity to Zika once they've been infected, and if they are infected, they may or may not show symptoms. The most important thing parents can do for their kids this summer is to prevent them from even getting Zika in the first place — whether it's by hosing them down with plenty of bug spray or keeping them inside during dusk hours when mosquitos are their most active.