A mosquito-borne illness called Zika virus is quickly making waves around the world after thousands of infected women gave birth to babies with severe brain and head underdevelopment in Brazil. As the disease spreads at a rapid pace, here’s what you should know.
The World Health Organization Is Very Concerned
Officials from the World Health Organization said on Thursday that the Zika virus was “spreading explosively” in the Americas and announced that they would convene an emergency meeting on Monday to decide whether to declare a public health emergency. “The level of alarm is extremely high,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, the director general of the W.H.O., in a speech in Geneva. [New York Times]
Highly Affected Countries Have Begun To Warn Women To Delay Pregnancy For Years
In a stunning development in El Salvador, health officials have advised all women of reproductive age to delay pregnancy until 2018 due to concerns about possible birth defects linked to the virus. Earlier this month, the El Salvador Health Department disclosed they had found 492 Zika cases. [ABC News]
Zika Can Cause Severe Brain Damage And Paralysis If Transmitted To A Fetus
Fear began after Zika was connected to brain development in babies:
Those infected with Zika during pregnancy appear to be able to transmit the virus to their fetuses. In some cases, this may lead to microcephaly, a terrible congenital condition that’s associated with a small head and incomplete brain development. Babies born with microcephaly have a limited life expectancy and poor brain function. [Vox]
Last week it was announced that Zika may also cause the paralytic condition Guillain-Barré Syndrome:
With GBS, a person typically will lose strength in the legs at first; for some, the problem progresses in an “ascending” manner, meaning that the arms and the muscles of breathing may be next affected. Thankfully, for most patients, this severe form does not develop. If a patient—even one with paralyzed breathing muscles — can be stabilized, including support with a ventilator if needed, most will survive. [The Daily Beast]
New Evidence Suggests That It Could Also Be Sexually Transmitted
Zika virus has already been linked to brain damage in babies and paralysis in adults. Now scientists are facing another ominous possibility: that on rare occasions, the virus might be transmitted through sex. The evidence is very slim; only a couple of cases have been described in medical literature. But a few experts feel the prospect is disturbing enough that federal health officials should inform all travelers, not just pregnant women, of the potential danger. [The New York Times]
Concern Began After Thousands Of Cases Were Reported In Brazil
Brazil has reported 3,893 suspected cases of microcephaly, the WHO said last Friday, over 30 times more than in any year since 2010 and equivalent to 1-2 percent of all newborns in the state of Pernambuco, one of the worst-hit areas. [Reuters]
Now, Cases Are Being Tracked In The US
Already, one pregnant woman who likely contracted the virus in Brazil in May 2015 later gave birth to a baby in Hawaii suffering from microcephaly. On January 25 the World Health Organization said that Zika would spread throughout the Americas because the mosquitoes that transmit it are everywhere except in Chile and Canada. [Scientific American]
And The CDC Has Warned Pregnant Travelers To Avoid Highly Affected Countries
Pregnant women should not travel to Barbados, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guadeloupe, Saint Martin, Guyana, Cape Verde and Samoa because of Zika virus, the CDC said Friday … This comes on the heels of last week’s travel alert from the CDC recommending pregnant women postpone travel to Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela and Puerto Rico.
The Economist has produced a nice map illustrating transmission risk based on climate and travel patterns:
— The Economist (@TheEconomist) January 26, 2016
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Other info from CNN
A relatively new mosquito-borne virus is prompting worldwide concern because of an alarming connection to a neurological birth disorder and the rapid spread of the virus across the globe. The Zika virus, transmitted by the aggressive Aedes aegypti mosquito, has now spread to at least 23 countries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning pregnant women against travel to those areas; health officials in several of those countries are telling female citizens to avoid becoming pregnant, in some cases for up to two years. Here are five important things to know.
What is Zika and why is it so serious?
The Zika virus is part of the same family as the viruses that cause yellow fever, West Nile, chikungunya and dengue. But unlike some of those viruses, there is no vaccine to prevent Zika or medicine to treat the infection. Zika is commanding worldwide attention because of an alarming connection between the virus and microcephaly, a neurological disorder that results in babies being born with abnormally small heads. This causes severe developmental issues and sometimes death.
How is Zika spread?
The virus is transmitted when an Aedes mosquito bites a person with an active infection and then spreads the virus by biting others. Those people then become carriers during the time they have symptoms. In most people, symptoms of the virus are mild, including fever, headache, rash and possible pink eye. In fact, 80% of those infected never know they have the disease. That’s especially concerning for pregnant women, as this virus has now been shown to pass through amniotic fluid to the growing baby.
Where is the Zika virus now?
The Zika virus is now being locally transmitted in Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Cape Verde, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, Suriname, Samoa and Venezuela, says the CDC. Zika has arrived in the United States, but only from travelers returning from these infected areas. The concern, of course, is whether these imported cases could result in locally transmitted cases within the United States.
The Aedes albopictus, or Asian tiger mosquito, which along with Aedes aegypti transmits Zika virus, is present in many areas of the United States. If mosquitoes in the United States do become carriers, a model created by Toronto researchers found more than 63% of the U.S. population lives in areas where Zika virus might spread during seasonally warm months. A little over 7% of Americans live in areas where the cold might not kill off the mosquito in the winter, leaving them vulnerable year round.
What can you do to protect yourself against Zika?
With no treatment or vaccine available, the only protection against Zika is to avoid travel to areas with an active infestation. If you do travel to a country where Zika is present, the CDC advises strict adherence to mosquito protection measures: Use an EPA-approved repellent over sunscreen, wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts thick enough to block a mosquito bite, and sleep in air-conditioned, screened rooms, among others. If you have Zika, you can keep from spreading it to others by avoiding mosquito bites during the first week of your illness, says the CDC. The female Aedes aegypti, the primary carrier of Zika, is an aggressive biter, preferring daytime to dusk and indoors to outdoors. Keeping screens on windows and doors is critical to preventing entry to homes and hotel rooms. If that’s not possible, says the CDC, sleep under mosquito netting.
What’s being done to stop Zika?
Researchers are hard at work in laboratories around the world trying to create a Zika vaccine. Until those efforts bear fruit, health officials are implementing traditional mosquito control techniques such as spraying pesticides and emptying standing water receptacles where mosquitoes breed. The CDC is encouraging local homeowners, hotel owners and visitors to countries with Zika outbreaks to join in by also eliminating any standing water they see, such as in outdoor buckets and flowerpots.
But field trials in Brazil in 2011 were hugely successful, according to Oxitec, eliminating up to 99% of the target population. A new release of males in the Pedra Branca area of Brazil in 2014 was 92% successful, according to the company. The mosquito has also been tested in the Cayman Islands, Malaysia and Panama. Last year, Oxitec announced plans to build an OX513A mosquito production facility in Piracicaba, Brazil, that it says will be able to protect 300,000 residents.
Anyone travelling to one or more of the affected countries is reminded to use insect repellent, wear clothing that covers their arms and legs and rest under a mosquito net or in rooms which have air conditioning.
Anyone who is pregnant, suffering from an immune or chronic illness or who is accompanied by young children, should consult their GP or seek advice at a travel clinic before travel.