In the last couple of months it seems as if the hysteria over Zika virus has increased ten-fold. Individuals in South America, Central America and the Caribbean have been advised by public health agencies to avoid pregnancy due to the potential connection between Zika virus infection and birth defects. The potential consequence of Zika that is eliciting the most fear is microcephaly, a condition where babies are born with abnormally small heads that has been associated with infection early in pregnancy. Cases have been reported of traveling Americans returning to the States with Zika, and as a result, American officials are ready to increase mosquito control. Mosquito control is a huge concern, especially in the South, due to the fast approaching spring and summer seasons. But what exactly is the Zika virus and where did it come from?
Zika virus was discovered in 1947 in a monkey that resided in the Zika forest located in Uganda. The virus was first detected in humans in the 1950s. However, the first outbreak of Zika in humans that received international attention was in Micronesia in 2007. A few years later, in 2014, there was another outbreak in French Polynesia. The current outbreak began last year in Brazil and has spread to the Caribbean, South America, Central America and Mexico. Everyone in these areas is at risk and should take all necessary precautions to avoid infection. There are two strains of the Zika virus – the African strain and the Asian strain. The virus that is currently circulating in the Americas is closer to the Asian Strain of the virus.
Daytime-active mosquitoes spread the Zika virus, just like Dengue and Chikungunya are spread. The most common carrier, a type of mosquito called Aedes aegypti, is found all over the world, across all continents. An increasing amount of evidence shows that Zika can be transmitted sexually and from mother to child during pregnancy. Like other sexually transmitted infections, sexual transmission of Zika can be prevented by abstinence or safe-sex practices like condom usage. Zika virus infection in pregnant women has been linked to miscarriage and microcephaly. Microcephaly can cause seizures, developmental delay, feeding problems, hearing loss and vision problems. In very rare instances, Zika has been linked to severe dehydration, neurological diseases like Guillan-Barré and even death. More common effects of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain, conjunctivitis, muscle pain and headaches. The illness caused by the Zika virus is generally mild and people rarely die from it. A large proportion of people do not even show symptoms.
If it is suspected that you or someone you know has Zika, the first step is to go to a doctor for a diagnosis. A history of illness will be recorded and then the doctor will carry out a physical exam and a blood test will be ordered. A blood test is the only way to differentiate Zika virus from related illnesses such as Dengue or Chikungunya. Unfortunately, there is no vaccine or cure for the Zika virus as of now. All current treatment is aimed at reducing symptoms. Treatment includes lots of rest, pain medications for fever and body aches and lots of fluids to prevent dehydration. President Obama and U.S. health officials have requested a large amount of emergency funding – 1.8 billion – in order to combat Zika in the United States and to help protect pregnant women from the terrible effects the virus may have on unborn children.
There are several methods being implemented in attempts to stop the spread of the Zika virus. Mosquito prevention methods, like window and door screens, insect repellent, insecticides, automatic misting systems, are highly recommended. Even something as small as emptying water from any containers outside can help prevent mosquito breeding. The question of how Zika virus spread so quickly may still be unanswered, but here is to hoping that a cure is discovered before the summer months bring more mosquitoes – and Zika cases – to the United States.