By: Sanika Joshi
Every time you check your Facebook newsfeed or open a newspaper, you will most likely see two recently relevant words: Zika virus. But what truly is Zika and why is it gaining so much momentum in the news? As a matter of fact, Zika is the name of a virus that is transmitted through the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito and originates from the same family of viruses (known as flavivirus) that is responsible for causing a plethora of diseases such as the yellow fever, dengue, and West Nile virus . The World Health Organization recently declared this virus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern as research suggested a strong correlation between the Zika virus and neurological birth defects, which is most problematic. In addition, it is also known to cause autoimmune disorders such as microcephaly in human babies, resulting in an abnormally small head; and Gullian-Barre Syndrome (GBS), a condition that may lead to paralysis .
Although the virus may seem deadly because of its known effects and disorders, the symptoms of Zika are relatively mild. They include light fever, red eyes, skin rash, and joint pain that may last for approximately one to two weeks. Other than infected mosquitos, this disease can also be transmitted from a mother to her child, through sexual contact, and blood transfusions . The associated fever is not known to be fatal and those infected with the virus are asymptomatic approximately eighty percent of the time. Consequently, however, it is difficult to diagnose due to the asymptomatic nature of the Zika virus and its posing similarities with other mosquito-borne viruses such as the dengue fever and chikungunya.
The first occurrence and discovery of the virus was in 1947 from a rhesus monkey in Uganda, and has since then been continuously spreading throughout the continental regions of Africa and Asia, as those continents provide ideal breeding environments (a tropical climate) for mosquitos . It was in 2007 when this virus truly became a public health concern when there was a Zika virus outbreak on Yap Island, located in the Federated States of Micronesia. This island posed a problem because it was geographically set apart from Africa and Asia, eventually leading to the finding of 49 confirmed cases of Zika virus . The virus has since infected residents of many countries such as Brazil, which took the hardest hit with 4,000 suspected cases. The Pan-American Health Organization issued an epidemiological alert on December 1, 2015 stating that the virus had spread to most Latin-American countries such Mexico, Chile, Guatemala, Brazil and more. To date, it has infected thirty-four countries, most of which are in Latin America; there have been no confirmed cases of the Zika virus in the United States, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) expects that a local outbreak may arise soon .
Currently there are no medical treatments for the Zika virus and there is no vaccine to prevent this virus from spreading. The CDC recommends that, once properly diagnosed, those infected should get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids; it also advises pregnant women to postpone trips to countries that are known to be infected with the virus . The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control advises eliminating sources of standing water such as flowerpots and rock pools, as they provide an ideal breeding site for mosquitos . Subsequently, it is important to take personal protection measures, such as wearing long-sleeved shirts and applying mosquito repellent especially when travelling overseas. So the next time you see the word “Zika” as you are scrolling down your Facebook newsfeed, know that it is simply a mosquito-borne virus that can be avoided if you are thoroughly prepared.
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