Zika virus: what you need to know

Last May, an outbreak of the Zika virus started in Brazil and has spread throughout South America. Recently, an alarming number of cases have been recorded in numerous U.S. states.

Zika virus is spread most commonly through bites from the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, but can also be spread through unprotected sex. Commonly found in tropical climates, the virus causes fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes. Although symptoms are usually mild and most cases of the virus last less than a week, there is currently no way of treating the virus. Some preventative measures against the symptoms include rest, hydration, and pain relievers.

Discovered in a monkey in the Zika forest of Uganda in 1947, the virus was known to cause fever, and in 1952, the virus had spread to humans. For years, Zika fever was well known amongst African and Asian countries, however between 2013 and 2014 the virus has spread across the Pacific Ocean to countries in Central America, South America, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases believes that the virus will continue to spread. “That’s a pandemic in progress. It isn’t as if it’s turning around and dying out, it’s getting worse and worse as the days go by” said Fauci. Since 2015, there has been almost 3,000 confirmed cases and over 130,000 suspected cases of the Zika virus in the Americas. There have been no mosquito born cases from any U.S. states, but there have been 107 travel associated cases reported to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the virus is likely to spread throughout most of the Americas by the end of the year and has already spread to 25 states.

Not only is the virus rapidly spreading, but it is low symptomatic, spreading the epidemic  even further. Peter Hotez, director of the vaccine development department at Texas Children’s Hospital believes the low level of symptoms is one of the most dangerous aspects of the virus. Once infected, only about one in five people ever show symptoms of the virus; this leaves room for the virus to spread to others unknowingly.

Although the symptoms of virus are often mild, there are potentially serious consequences for pregnant women who encounter the Zika virus. As of February, scientists have found a link between babies born with an abnormally small head to women who have the virus in their system. The birth defect called “microcephalic” causes the babies brain to be abnormally small and underdeveloped. Knowledge of the link between microcephalic and the virus is still evolving, but the CDC recommends precautions for pregnant women. The organization says, “Pregnant women in any trimester should consider postponing travel to any area where Zika virus is spreading.”

According to the CDC, approximately half a million pregnant women are estimated to travel from 32 Zika-affected countries to the U.S. in the upcoming year. There have already been nine confirmed Zika cases in pregnant women in the U.S. This vulnerability to the virus in addition to the ideal- humid climate of the Southern U.S. states leaves room for widespread U.S. exposure to the virus.

There has been one reported travel associated case in Washington state. Although it is unlikely the virus will thrive in the Washington’s climate because the Aedes Aegypti mosquito does not live here, people traveling to Zika infected areas should take steps of prevention. The CDC recommends people wear protective clothing, stay in places with air conditioning, use insect repellent, and sleep under mosquito nets.

WHO and several other major public health organizations are in the process of researching about the virus. “Our relatively poor knowledge of the Zika virus presents a series of challenges for research and development.  Numerous groups are looking at the feasibility of initiating animal or human testing, particularly for vaccinations and diagnostics,” said the organization. “Although we know even less about Zika than we did about Ebola, we are learning more every day and are much better prepared to advance much needed research to blunt the threat of Zika.”

Thumbnail photo courtesy Time