You may have heard the travel warnings about the Zika virus in Brazil, but travel alerts have also been issued for Central America, the Caribbean, Mexico and the Pacific Islands. Travelers should take extra measures to protect themselves from mosquito bites, especially pregnant women, due to the possibility of the baby developing a serious birth defect called microcephaly.
As of February 1, the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus a global health emergency. Since last fall, over 4,000 cases of microcephaly have been reported in Brazil. Of these, experts have only analyzed 732 cases and have found only 270 that could possibly be related to Zika. Experts have yet to confirm whether or not Zika actually causes microcephaly, but the WHO seems to believe that there is a likely correlation between the two. The rise in cases of microcephaly has been positively correlated with the rise of the Zika virus.
Microcephaly is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is normally passed from the mother to the child before birth, but it may also develop at a young age. The disorder is a result of chromosomal abnormalities. Infants born with microcephaly usually, but not always, have an abnormally small skull and may suffer from seizures and trouble with motor functions. They also suffer from impaired intellectual development.
Zika Virus Symptoms and Prevention
What is the Zika virus and what are the symptoms?
The Zika virus is related to the dengue, yellow fever and West Nile viruses. Aedes mosquitos, the same genus of mosquito that spreads dengue and chikungunya, are the ones that are spreading the Zika virus across South and Central America. Although the virus is mostly spread by means of a mosquito biting an infected person and then biting another person, the virus is spread through contact with blood. Therefore it may also be transmitted at birth, through sexual intercourse and by blood transfusion.
According to the CDC, only about 1 out of 5 people infected with the virus will show symptoms and become ill. The most common symptoms the Zika virus has caused are fever, rash, red eyes and joint pain. Most people will get better within a week. However, in rare cases some people may develop Guillain-Barre syndrome, a neurological disorder, as a result of the virus.
Where did the Zika virus originate?
The Zika virus was first discovered in Africa in the 1940s, and cases have been reported in equatorial countries in Africa and Southeast Asia. In 2014, the virus spread across the Pacific to French Polynesia where it eventually made its way to Easter Island and the tropical regions of South and Central America.
The first case in Brazil was confirmed in May of 2015. Now transmission of the virus has been confirmed in most of South America, all of Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.
No vaccine is currently available to prevent the virus and there is no cure, but at least three companies are currently pursuing research programs to develop a vaccine. A tested and approved human Zika virus vaccine is not likely to be developed by the end of 2016.
The Zika virus is not likely to spread to the northern U.S. or the southernmost regions of South America due to the cooler climates, but the number of travelers returning to the U.S. after having been infected is likely to result in the spread of the virus within the Southern U.S. via mosquito. Monitor the Zika virus in the news over the next few months to see how it spreads, and take extra precautions from mosquitos if traveling to regions where the virus has been transmitted.