Photo courtesy of The Telegraph
By Kerry Nisler
The World Health Organization declared the Zika virus an international health emergency on Feb. 1, confirming the seriousness of the outbreak and providing crucial information to contain it. Although a lot remains uncertain, here’s what we know so far.
What is the Zika virus?
The Zika virus is a mosquito-transmitted infection. The virus has long circulated in areas of Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, but it is new to the Western Hemisphere. An outbreak of the virus was first detected in Brazil in May 2015 where an estimated 1.5 million people are thought to have been infected. Since then, Zika has spread throughout Latin American and the Caribbean and, as of Feb. 4, cases were reported in Spain and the United States.
How is it transmitted?
Zika is transmitted by the same mosquitoes that carry diseases such as Chikungunya, Dengue and Yellow Fever. There is also growing evidence that the virus can spread through sexual contact. On Feb. 3, it was confirmed a person who contracted Zika in Venezuela transmitted the virus to a sexual partner in Texas. This was the first case of Zika reported in the United States. Federal health officials are advising men having intercourse after traveling to Zika areas to consider wearing condoms to prevent sexual transmission.
What are the symptoms?
One in five people infected with the virus develop symptoms, which are typically mild, including rash, fever, conjunctivitis (pink eye) and joint pain. Symptoms typically begin 2 to 7 days after being bitten by an infected mosquito, and subside within a week. Brazilian doctors have also linked the virus to an extremely rare condition, Guillain-Barré, in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system, causing temporary paralysis in patients.
Is the virus linked to birth defects?
Experts suspect that if a pregnant woman is infected, the virus could cause brain damage in her unborn child as well as other defects and deformities. An estimated several thousand babies in Brazil could have microcephaly, a congenital condition associated with incomplete brain development resulting in abnormal smallness of the head. It is suspected that Zika is the cause, but it is too early to know for sure. For now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is advising pregnant women not to travel to areas where the virus is prevalent. El Salvador went so far as to suggest women wait until 2018 to become pregnant, as to reduce the risk of possible birth defects.
Is there a cure?
No. There is no vaccine to prevent or medicine to treat Zika infections. To treat symptoms, the C.D.C. recommends plenty of rest, drink fluids to prevent dehydration and take medicine such as acetaminophen to relieve pain and reduce fever.
Should we be concerned about Zika in the United States?
The Aedes mosquitoes that transmit Zika virus are present in the United States, but mosquito control in the U.S. tends to be more systematic and more effective than in Latin America. Therefore, the chances of locally acquired vector-borne cases in the U.S. are unlikely. However, imported cases among infected travelers visiting or returning to the United States may result in the spread of Zika in some areas of the country. Despite this, it is unlikely the virus will be as devastating in the United States as it has been elsewhere.