The Zika virus, which originated in eastern Africa near Uganda in 1947, has a profound influence on the neurological growth of unborn children despite its mild symptoms and simple treatment.
It slowly moved westward across the continent of Africa over the course of 68 years. The first large outbreak in humans occurred in Yap in 2007, followed quickly by confirmed cases in North and South America starting in 2015. The Zika outbreaks were declared a Public Health Emergency by the World Health Organization in February 2016.
What is Zika?
Zika is a virus of the family Flaviviridae spread by daytime active mosquitos. The name originates from the Zika Forest in Uganda, where the virus was first located.
Zika Virus Structure
Symptoms of Zika Fever
Zika is in the same family of infectious diseases as dengue or yellow fever, and its symptoms are mild or, in some cases, nonexistent. Those who carry the virus sometimes experience:
• Malaise (general feeling of discomfort)
• Mild headaches
• Joint Pain
These symptoms are rare and do not appear in all cases. With rest, the rash will usually disappear within 24-48 hours, and the remaining fever and malaise will disappear over time with the help of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
There is currently no known vaccine or cure for Zika, and treatment has been relegated only to rest. However, its potential to affect healthy living is still under investigation.
Zika and Microcephaly
As of May 2016, the largest known health threat related to Zika is the prevalence of the birth defect microcephaly in children born of mothers who have contracted the Zika virus. There are also reported cases of other brain-related deformities.
Microcephaly is stunted development of the brain in fetuses that causes the cranium and scalp to grow unusually small and narrow. The reduced brain size causes lower life expectancy and poor brain function that becomes more pronounced as the child ages.
The unusual shape of the skull creates a pronounced differentiation in physical appearance when compared to those without microcephaly. The head is usually at least two standard deviations smaller than that of the head of an unaffected child.
Newborns with microcephaly often experience regular seizures and have a difficult time developing intellectually at a pace on par with their peers. Motor function and speech development is usually delayed and never fully develops, and hyperactivity appears as children grow older.
Preventing Zika-Induced Microcephaly
Researchers do not yet understand the mechanism that causes brain deformities like microcephaly fully. Accordingly, the World Health Organization has labeled Zika a Public Health Emergency so that medical researchers can focus their resources and efforts on preventing cases of microcephaly caused by Zika.
As understanding is so limited at this time, the best measure for preventing Zika is finding a way to quarantine it and buy time to develop medications and vaccinations. Until there are definitive results, use of insect repellant and limiting time in areas with a prevalent mosquito population are recommended for everyone living in North and South America.