The new virus Zika is now alarming people worldwide as it not only affects adults but also unborn babies of mothers who have contracted the virus from mosquitoes. Currently, the spread of the virus is limited to Brazil with sporadic cases in other areas in the Americas.
The World Health Organization has declared the virus outbreak as a global emergency.
Should this be causing a pandemic all over again?
What is Zika Virus?
The virus and its symptoms are mild. However, what makes it alarming is the way it is linked to brain deformation among kids born to mothers who have been bitten by a mosquito infected with the virus.
Zika is a virus that is caused and transmitted by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. It’s a condition that results in mild fever, skin rash and conjunctivitis. The symptoms can last between 2-7 days.
These past few weeks the news about this disease has been filling social media with dread. Nine New Yorkers have been reported as having contracted the illness after travel to an affected region. The climate of panic associated with the Zika virus is similar to the Ebola crisis which spurned worldwide alarm.
Zika cases continue to rise with time. The region hit hardest with occurences has been Latin America, with huge possibilities of spreading in the US. The first notice of the outbreak was in May last year. Outbreaks have since been roported in many areas of South and North America. There is no concrete evidence as to how the virus reached the continent but there is a possibility, according to the Brazilian government, that a World Cup traveller from French Polynesia brought it to the country.
The CDC has issued a travel alert level 2 for people travelling to the following countries:
- El Salvador
- and Puerto Rico
Although other countries such as Nicaragua, US Virgin Islands, Samoa, Saint Martin, Maldives, Jamaica, Guyana, Guatemala, Guadalupe, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Curacao, Costa Rica, Cape Verde, Bolivia and Barbados were also included in a list of countries of concern.
In Australia, several Australian Federal Police Officers have contracted the virus after deployment overseas but were treated immediately.
Fast Facts about Zika Virus
#1 Zika originated in and was named after a forest in Uganda
The first case of Zika was recorded in Uganda in 1947. In fact, its name is derived from the Zika Forest. The forest was frequented by researchers studying different mosquitoes at different elevations. During this time, their research focuses on yellow fever. While immersed in the lab studying the fever, the group found an unknown virus carried by a rhesus monkey. The team was led by Scottish entomologist Alexander Haddow.
And following the protocols, the unknown virus that was found in the monkey’s blood sample was called Zika after the place where it was first identified. The virus was first described in a paper in 1952, five years after its identification.
#2 Mosquitoes acquired the virus from animals and it has since mutated
The virus was only proven to infect monkeys originally. In subsequent decades after it reached human, there was no conscious effort to tame the virus since the symptoms were mild and the country of Uganda never saw it as a threat. However, this recent strain of the Zika is a mutated virus that is different from the original. It is said to have increased its virulence and has spread since then after mosquitoes acquired it from animals.
#3 Few people contracted the virus in the past
In Uganda, there were a dozen or so who were said to be isolated human cases of infection. However, no real threats were raised after that. Prior to the current outbreak, there were only 14 documented cases of Zika virus infection. Since it did not pose much of a risk, the virus wasn’t contained early.
#4 South African and Asian people may have a higher immunity to the virus
Although it has not been proved, there is a belief that people from Africa and Asia have tolerated the virus for a much longer amount of time than the rest of the world has been subject to it and so are immune. Of course, the World Health Organization warns the regions that they shouldn’t be too reliant on this belief.
Dr. Ahmed Kalebi of Kenya for example said the absence of a major outbreak in the country despite the fact that their mosquitoes carry the virus is an indication that the majority of their population has developed a level of immunity. The country saw no prevalence of the symptoms of microcephaly among babies born to mothers bitten by the mosquitoes. According to a study published in the The Journal of Immunology, Indians have a passive immunity to the virus carried by these mosquitos.
#5 The virus is carried by Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus
The mosquitoes that carry the virus are the Aides aegypti and Aedes albopictus. These very same mosquito species are also known to transmit dengue, chikungunya and West Nile diseases. These mosquitoes are present everywhere around the world, except for cold regions, and are currently spreading through parts of America after an outbreak from its southern countries. The Aedes aegypti is known as the yellow fever mosquitoe while the Aedes albopictus is known as the Asian tiger mosquitoe.
#6 It can show little to no symptoms
It is believed that Zika virus is nothing to be feared about in the past. Its symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis. Other people who were infected had muscle pain and headache. The virus’ incubation can last a few days to a week although this is not established yet.
The symptoms of the virus can last for several days to a week. The symptoms often are not worse that people don’t even go to the hospital and there were no cases of people dying from the condition. Studies found that the virus can remain in the blood of the infected person for a week after the symptoms stops. However, in some cases, it may stay longer.
These symptoms only manifest in one fifth of people who contacted the virus. And although it was first stated that Zika may not prove to be fatal, recent news reports fatalities from Colombia due to Guillain-Barré syndrome, although it is not yet confirmed if the relationship between the disease and the virus is positive.
#7 Blood tests confirm the virus
Diagnosis of Zika virus is often based of clinical symptoms plus the epidemiological circumstances i.e. outbreak in area one is living in or travel to a country where an outbreak has been reported.
Blood tests can confirm the diagnosis. Health facilities may use virological PCR tests in the first 3-5 days after the first symptom develops and serological tests which can only be used after five days. Nucleic acid detection is also mentioned in the diagnosis.
#8 It is said to affect unborn babies, results in congenital malformations
Zika and microcephaly (congenital condition associated with incomplete brain development) isn’t definitely proven. However the link between the two is based on circumstantial evidence – when Zika virus cases rose, babies of affected mothers were reported to have microcephaly.
Tests show that a genetic material from the virus has been detected in both mothers and in their amniotic fluid which potentially influences neonatal infection and defects.
#9 It is related to Guillain-Barré syndrome
More publicised relationship between Zika and microcephaly made people aware of its link. However, another disease lurking behind the virus seemed to be hidden in the spotlight – the Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Guillain-Barré Syndrome is a rare condition that can lead to death. The condition results in the immune system attacking the nerves causing paralysis. The condition can affect anyone. The condition starts with numbness and tingling in the hands and feet. Later on, it may lead to muscle weakness. When it worsens, the weakness may spread to the chest affecting breathing and leaving patients to rely on life support.
Guillain-Barré Syndrome can be fatal. However, many patients may recover in a few weeks from paralysis but muscle weakness may last for years. Reports in Brazil said that 160 people were ill with two paralysed by the condition two weeks after contracting the disease.
#10 Zika has no vaccine
Zika has no vaccine currently. An Indian biotech company however is reported to be developing the vaccine. Their two vaccine candidates are now in pre-clinical testing. And if it succeeds in trials, the company will be compliant with all the international standards.
#11 It can be sexually transmitted
The earlier belief that Zika can only be transmitted through mosquito bites has been proven wrong. A recent case of Zika transmission through sexual contact has been confirmed by the CDC. The case was of someone who returned infected from Venezuela and transmitted it to a partner.
The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention recently released Interim Guidelines for Prevention of Sexual Transmission of Zika Virus. Read for more info.
Zika virus is known to be transmitted in three ways:
- From bite of an infected mosquito
- Sexual contact
- Contact with bodily fluids i.e. saliva and urine (read news here)
Travel Advisory and Precautions
To prevent the further spread of the virus, governments and health organisations issued travel precautions. Here are the precautions one can take when travelling to countries with Zika cases:
- Travellers are advised to wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants to protect from mosquito bites.
- Use mosquito nets at night.
- Bring insect repellent lotion and reapply every few hours. Use it over your sunscreen and choose one that is approved by health organisations.
- For kids, practice the same precaution. Covering their arms and legs and applying child-safe insect repellent will decrease the risk of infection. When using a crib or stroller, cover them with mosquito net.
- Use clothing and other permethrin treated items.
- Use masks and avoid contact with any bodily fluid during your stay in the country.
- Avoid sexual contact during your travel.
- And to be safe, postpone travel if it’s not really a necessity.
For mothers, the risk of Zika is even a bigger problem. Now governments are advising women “to not get pregnant” for fear of contracting the virus and passing it on to their unborn child.
- Zika has little to no symptoms.
- It can be transmitted through mosquito bites, sexual contact and bodily fluids contact.
- Virus is related to rise of two serious conditions – microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome.
- You can prevent contracting Zika by following precautions or postponing travel abroad.
- Constant clean up and prevention of mosquito breeding can help reduce the virus..
- Vaccine is still in the testing process.
Spread the word and do as much as you can to prevent this.