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TUESDAY, May 31, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- Americans are becoming more informed about the Zika virus, but there are still some large gaps in their knowledge of the mosquito-borne illness that can cause devastating birth defects, a new HealthDay/Harris Poll finds.
Most adults also know the main precautions to be taken to protect against contracting Zika from a mosquito bite -- good news, given that mosquito season is now under way.
But there's a significant lack of understanding regarding the other ways Zika can be transmitted, the poll found.
Humphrey Taylor, chairman emeritus of The Harris Poll, said public health officials are, by and large, doing a good job of informing the public about Zika.
"While there is a fair amount of confusion and misinformation about the Zika virus, most Americans are aware of how it is transmitted, what the main risks are, and of steps that can be taken to protect themselves and the public," Taylor said.
There have yet to be any cases of mosquito-transmitted Zika infections in the continental United States. So far, the epidemic has been confined to Latin America and the Caribbean.
But, U.S. public health officials expect at least small outbreaks in areas laden with the breeds of mosquitoes that can spread the virus. Gulf Coast states -- such as Florida, Louisiana and Texas -- have the highest risk of an outbreak, officials say.
Zika virus is worrisome, however, because it's the first mosquito-borne illness known to cause microcephaly and other brain-related birth defects if an expectant mother becomes infected. Microcephaly results in babies born with abnormally small heads and brains. Nearly 5,000 babies have been born with microcephaly in Brazil, the epicenter of the Zika epidemic, according to the World Health Organization.
The new poll found that three out of four Americans are very or somewhat familiar with the Zika virus, and 84 percent are aware that pregnant women are at high risk.
In addition, 76 percent of adults understand that Zika can be transmitted through a mosquito bite.
However, only 48 percent understand that a fetus can contract Zika from an infected mother, and only 57 percent are aware that Zika can cause brain damage in the womb.
A majority of adults also aren't aware that Zika can be spread by sexual contact. Only 45 percent understand that having sex with an infected person can spread the virus. And, only 51 percent cited "barrier methods" such as condom use as a way to prevent Zika infection.
"I find it worrisome that a minority of people understand that Zika can be sexually transmitted," said Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, chair of the Infectious Diseases Society of America's Public Health Committee. "Women can get Zika from their male sexual partners. We need to continue to improve our messaging around the risk of sexual transmission, because this is such a devastating disease for a developing fetus."
On the upside, large majorities of Americans understand the best ways to prevent Zika infection via mosquito: Getting rid of pools of standing water (73 percent); using insect repellent (73 percent); wearing clothing that covers as much skin as possible (71 percent); avoiding travel to infected areas (68 percent); and using insecticide (68 percent).
Half of adults living in the South understand that their region is most at risk for Zika outbreaks. Fifty percent of southerners said it's "very" or "somewhat" likely that Zika will infect people in their area over the next 12 months, compared to 44 percent of people nationwide.
Duchin expects that Americans' knowledge of Zika will improve once outbreaks of the virus begin in the country.
"I do believe the public pays attention when they feel they are at risk," said Duchin, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Washington School of Public Health.
"Without having Zika on the mainland currently, we have a bit of a communication challenge. Once we have local transmission in the United States, which is likely, people will perk up their ears a little bit more," added Duchin, who's also health officer for Public Health-Seattle & King County.
The HealthDay/Harris Poll was conducted online, in English, within the United States, May 17-19 among 2,026 adults 18 and older. Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted, where necessary, to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. "Propensity-score weighting" was also used to adjust for respondents' likelihood to be online.
Copyright © 2016 HealthDay. All rights reserved.
SOURCES: Humphrey Taylor, chairman emeritus, The Harris Poll; Jeffrey Duchin, M.D., professor of infectious diseases, University of Washington School of Public Health, and health officer, Public Health-Seattle & King County, Washington; HealthDay/Harris Poll, May 17-19, 2016