Here’s What You Need to Know About the Zika Virus

A Mass General doc discusses the disease and whether you should actually be worried.

UPDATED, February 1, 2016, 2 p.m.: As of today, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared Zika an international public health emergency, mainly because of its connection to microcephaly. The designation gives the WHO power to oversee intervention efforts, and often encourages funding from governments and non-profits.

UPDATED, 5:20 p.m.: The first case of Zika in Massachusetts has just been confirmed. The infected man contracted the virus while traveling to an affected area, officials say. Other cases are likely to be found in Massachusetts residents who have traveled outside the country, but the disease is not contagious.

If you haven’t stayed totally up-to-date on the Zika virus so far, you’re forgiven. But now, with more cases popping up in the United States and the World Health Organization meeting Monday to decide whether it constitutes a public health emergency, it’s time to get your facts straight.

Laura Riley, director of labor and delivery at Massachusetts General Hospital, helped the CDC shape its Zika guidelines to address common gynecological and pregnancy questions. We caught up with her to get all the Zika facts you need to know:

First of all, what is Zika?

Zika is a mosquito-borne virus that cause fever, rashes, joint pain, and red eyes. The disease is usually fairly harmless, but pregnant women who contract the virus may give birth to babies with microcephaly.

What’s microcephaly?

“Microcephaly is the brain being much smaller than it should be,” Riley says. “The problem with that is that translates to a baby that could have all sorts of deficits,” like neurodevelopmental delays or seizures.

Should I be worried about this?

The short answer: not unless you’re pregnant and have traveled to South America or the Caribbean. “The cases that are being determined now in the United States are cases of people who traveled to places where we know there’s lots of virus,” Riley says. “We’re not worried about people getting it in Boston.”

The virus is not contagious—though it may be sexually transmittable—and there’s little risk of a mosquito-borne illness spreading in the middle of a Boston winter, Riley says. Further, there has never been a locally contracted case of Zika in the continental United States.

Should I change my travel plans?

Maybe. Riley recommends playing it safe if you are pregnant or may become pregnant and are planning to go to South America or the Caribbean—even if your specific destination has no documented cases. “There have been reported cases in Barbados, but maybe not St. Lucia. The problem is, those islands are very close together,” she says. “The idea that the mosquito and the virus is on one island but not the next is probably false.”

Can I be tested for Zika?

Not really. “People don’t understand why we can’t just get a blood test,” Riley says. “Because the virus is so new and because how the disease actually develops is new to us, we don’t know exactly how to utilize the test information.” Still, women who have been exposed to the virus but do not have active symptoms are encouraged to get ultrasounds every three to four weeks throughout pregnancy.