If you are a public health professional, there is a good chance you have heard about the recent Zika virus outbreak, but for the average infectious disease n00b, you may have only heard the name in passing over the last few days.
What is the Zika virus? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), it is an emerging mosquito-borne virus. The disease has symptoms similar to the flu; fever, skin rashes, muscle pain, headache, etc. that are typically mild and last from 2 to 7 days, although 80% of people won't even show symptoms. It is primarily transmitted through mosquito bites, but, in isolated incidents, has transferred from mother to child and through bodily fluids. Although the disease was discovered in 1947 in Uganda, outbreaks have only occurred recently in the Pacific in 2007, in Yap and French Polynesia in 2013, and the present outbreak in South and Central America that began in April 2015.
So what is all the hoopla about? Margaret Chan, the WHO director general, gave four primary reasons for concern at the emergency meeting called in response to the Zika outbreak: potential for international spread, lack of immunity in newly affected populations, absence of vaccines, and, most importantly, the possible tie between the infection and both birth deformations and neurological syndromes.
Let’s break those issues down. While the mosquito responsible flies around a quarter of a mile (400 meters) in its life, human travel is primarily to blame for transporting mosquitos. Because outbreaks have been isolated and minor in the past, no vaccine has been developed and many can expect to be infected in the coming months. Despite researchers’ current attempts to create a vaccine, it may not be ready for a decade.
The main reason for alarm is that there seems to be a correlation between the rise in cases of the Zika virus and a rise in microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome. Microcephaly is a disorder where babies are born with a smaller head size, which often leads to developmental issues. Guillain-Barré syndrome causes the immune system to attack the body’s nerves. Since November 2015, Brazil has had 4,180 cases of microcephaly, compared to the 146 cases total in 2014 prior to the outbreak. Even though a correlation hasn't been scientifically proven, there is a strong likelihood they are related.
So should you be worried about the Zika virus? If you are not planning to travel to Latin America and are not planning on getting pregnant, then no. If you are planning to travel to Latin America, take the necessary precautions you would to avoid any mosquito transmitted virus. If you have been to Latin America recently and are pregnant and have exhibited symptoms of the Zika virus, contact a health care professional.
As it is an El Niño year, which means more standing water from storms, the Summer Olympics are in Rio, and the virus will continue to move as the seasons change, this will definitely be something everyone will hear about in the coming months. While continuing to heed warnings from the WHO and Center for Disease Control, we can collectively groan and ask, why did Noah let those stupid mosquitos on the ark?
For more information on the Zika virus, click here.