• A female Aedes aegypti mosquito in the process of acquiring a blood meal from a human host. (James Gathany/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Zika virus has seen health authorities in the United States issue travel warnings for 14 countries and territories. But is Australia at risk of the mosquito-borne virus?
By
Zara Zaher

18 Jan 2016 - 2:31 PM  UPDATED 18 Jan 2016 - 2:31 PM

Australians travelling overseas are being cautioned about the rising spread of mosquito-borne viruses.

The precaution comes after an outbreak of Zika virus which is transmitted to people through mosquito bites.

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What is Zika virus?

Zika virus was first isolated from a rhesus monkey in Uganda's Zika Forest in 1947.

The virus is common in West and Central Africa but also occurs in Pakistan, India, Vietnam,Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Micronesia.

Only a few imported cases have been reported in Australia, with no locally acquired infections.

Symptoms of the Zika virus include fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis. It can be very similar to those of dengue and chikungunya.

Professor Christian Doerig, from the Department of Microbiology at Monash University in Melbourne, says prevention is key to protecting individuals from the virus because there is no vaccine or treatment against it.

"Zika virus is transmitted exclusively through mosquito bites so the best way to get protected and not suffer an infection is to protect yourself against mosquito bites which means wearing long-sleeves and long pants and using mosquito repellents and if you go to a particularly infested area - sleeping under mosquito nets. This would be very effective in protecting you against mosquito bites," he said.

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Can Zika virus spread to Australia?

An infected person returning to Australia is not at risk of spreading the Zika virus to other residents, explains Doctor Mike Catton, Deputy Director of the Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne.

"Mosquito-borne viruses aren't transmissible person to person fortunately and it depends on a mosquito biting an infected person and biting another person," he said.

"The good news with Zika virus is that it's transmitted by the Aedes aegyptimosquito which is a mosquito which we don't have in Australia. It's the mosquito that transmits yellow fever.

"At this point if an Australian were infected overseas and were to come back to Australia the priority would be just appropriately caring for that person and diagnosing what they had but there wouldn't be at this point a risk of onward transmission to other Australians."

What should Australian travellers do?

The advice from Professor Christian Doerig from Monash University to Australian overseas travellers is to seek medical advice well ahead of departing.

"So it would be good to speak to the doctor anyway. Not just because of the Zika virus but because of all the potential infections that you can get when you travel in the tropics," he said.

"Also, there may be things to be checked in terms of what mosquito repellents to use and things like that because some people are sensitive to some brands and so it's always a good idea to talk to your GP before you go away to tropical countries."

How did this Zika outbreak happen?

Eddie Bajrovic, the Medical Director for Travelvax Australia, describes how the outbreak has gained renewed attention in recent times.

"Zika started off in Africa, in Uganda, and now it's all over South-East Asia, Indonesia, Micronesia, Polynesia, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu," he said.

"And now it's a real concern and why it's hitting the news is because it's invaded the Americas so the US are onto it.

"No cases in the US but it's in the Carribean and in Brazil in a big way which is important with travellers going to the Olympics to Rio later this year. They need to be aware of Zika as well as Dengue and Chikungunya which are all in Brazil."

Last Friday United States health officials issued a travel warning for 14 countries and territories in the Caribbean and Latin America where infection with Zika is a risk. In particular they cautioned pregnant women not to travel to those areas as Zika has been linked to serious birth defects.

The travel alert applies to Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela and Puerto Rico.

It follows the birth of a baby born with brain damage at a hospital in Hawaii infected by the Zika virus - the first case of the virus in a birth on U-S soil.