Background Information:

News of the mosquito-borne Zika virus has spread like wildfire over the past few months. The virus has gained attention around the globe due to its explosive spread and is now declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern as stated by the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General on February 1, 2016. The Zika virus is strongly suspected to be the cause of a rare neurological birth defect known as microcephaly, a condition where babies are born with an extremely small head, often resulting in developmental issues or, in extreme cases, death.

How is Zika transmitted?

The Zika virus is spread by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito, a particularly aggressive mosquito that bites during the day and is also known for spreading the dengue and chikungunya viruses.

Recently the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced a possible case of transmission of the Zika virus through a blood transfusion as well as a possible case of transmission through sexual activity.

The Zika virus was first discovered in a monkey from Uganda’s Zika Forest in 1947. Zika has been confirmed in humans throughout parts of Asia and Africa since the 1950s. It was first discovered outside its typical geographic area in 2007. In May 2015, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) issued an alert regarding the first confirmed case in Brazil. Since then, localized transmission has been reported in many other countries and territories. Without a vaccine or treatment yet developed to combat the Zika virus, it is likely to continue to spread.

Symptoms of Zika:

Health officials are very concerned since the Zika virus is a fairly new disease. With little to no exposure to the virus, there is low immunity for the general population, helping it spread rapidly.

Four out of five infected do not show symptoms.  For those who do, the most common symptoms are fever, rash, headache, muscle and joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes), lasting roughly two to seven days, rarely causing long-term effects.  But these typically don’t develop until up to one week after being bitten by the mosquito.

Health officials stress that the Zika virus is largely a health concern for women who are pregnant.

Zika, Microcephaly, and Guillain-Barre Syndrome:

Scientist believe that Zika infection can cause severe birth complications, including microcephaly; the greatest risk seems to be within the first trimester of pregnancy. Since May 2015, Brazil has reported more than 4,000 cases of babies born with microcephaly, up from fewer than 150 cases in 2014.

Scientists are also examining links between the Zika virus and Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS). GBS can start with tingling, progressing to muscle weakness and paralysis. The vast majority of people with GBS recover fully.

Areas Affected by Zika:

At present, the Zika virus is in 24 countries and territories, 22 of which are in the Americas. Many countries around the world have released travel warnings to encourage travelers, particularly pregnant women, to practice special precautions when visiting areas where the virus is present and asses the risk of their travel plans. Officials in heavily affected countries – including Brazil, Colombia and El Salvador – have gone so far as to caution women against becoming pregnant.

Prevention and Treatment of Zika:

Since the primary transmitter of the Zika virus is the Aedes mosquito, efforts are being made to prevent reproduction by eliminating mosquito breeding grounds.

Larvicide, particularly pyriproxyfen is being added to large standing water in affected areas. WHO states that the larvicide ingested by humans will not cause harm to their health and is excreted into the urine with 48 hours.

Another preventive measure is sterilizing, genetically modifying or infecting male Aedes mosquitoes. Once released, they mate with the females and the female lays eggs that do not survive.

Some countries are using biological methods to tackle the mosquito problem, such as El Salvador introducing larvae-devouring fish into water storage containers.

People residing in or traveling to countries where the Zika virus is present are urged to use preventive measures to avoid mosquito bites, such as insect repellent, clothing that covers the majority of the body, mosquito nets at night and keeping screens on windows and doors.

Officials in Brazil will soon dispatch some 220,000 troops to aid in eradicating the Aedes mosquito. Efforts will likely be doubled again in August, when Brazil hosts to the Olympic Games.

WHO has stated that numerous scientists around the world are working extensively to create a vaccine to aid those affected and will “prioritize the development of vaccines and new tools to control mosquito populations.” There are two vaccine candidates appearing to be at more advance stages than others, one from the United States, the other from India. However, it will likely be 18 months before the vaccines are able to be tested in large-scale trials.