The appearance of domestically contracted cases of Zika virus in Miami last month — unprecedented in the United States — is bad news for pregnant women and their families. Public health officials are encouraging vulnerable populations to protect themselves with bug spray and other anti-mosquito measures, but hyper-vigilant and understandably freaked out Americans definitely want to make sure they're doing everything they can and learning about all they ways they could become infected. And they may be worrying about whether Zika could become airborne, because that would make this situation much, much worse.
It's unsettling that the mosquitoes that carry and transmit the virus have finally infiltrated the country's borders. A baby born with the virus because his or her mother contracted it while pregnant may have microcephaly, which causes severe brain damage, and other birth defects and health challenges — so it's imperative that pregnant women in particular don't become infected. Scientists know that a certain species of mosquito, the Aedes aegypti, carries the virus, so a bite from one can prove problematic. Having sex with a person who has Zika can also put people at risk. There have never been any reported cases of Zika becoming airborne, though, and that probably won't happen. One worry, averted.
Airborne diseases are "caused by pathogenic microbes small enough to be discharged from an infected person via coughing, sneezing, laughing, and close personal contact," according to the CDC in Maine. And — big sigh of relief here — it's not happening with Zika.
Last month, Dr. Michael Bell, medical epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told U.S. News & World Report that it was "extremely unlikely" that Zika had become airborne, although it has been detected in urine, blood, semen, saliva, breast milk, vaginal fluid and inside the eye in the past. And NBC News reported that viruses simply do not mutate "wildly," so there's no chance that there's no chance that Zika could mutate into a form that could become airborne.
According to the CDC, Zika spreads primarily through mosquito bites, from mother to child during pregnancy, and through sex. Two other ways it has spread are much easier to control for and avoid: through a blood transfusion and laboratory exposure. That means that protecting yourself from the virus includes taking steps like avoiding travel to areas were the virus is present, warding off mosquitos with bug spray and being very, very careful about sex with anyone who hasn't taken these precautions.
But getting super concerned if people around you are sneezing and coughing their potentially Zika-laced germs into the air? Not really necessary. Now let's all slather on another layer of bug spray and go about our days.