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.
World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan said, “The level of alarm is extremely high,” which is why they are considering declaring a public health emergency.
The Zika virus, transmitted by the aggressive Aedes aegypti mosquito, has now spread to at least 24 countries. The WHO estimates 3 million to 4 million people across the Americas will be infected with the virus in the next year. 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.
1. What is Zika and why is it so serious?
The Zika virus is a flavivirus, part of the same family as 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.
Since November, Brazil has seen 4,180 cases of microcephaly in babies born to women who were infected with Zika during their pregnancies. To put that in perspective, there were only 146 cases in 2014. So far, 51 babies have died.
2. 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.
“What we now know,” said Dr. Lyle Petersen, director of the CDC’s Division of Vector-Borne Diseases, “is that fetuses can be infected with the virus. That’s not new for infectious diseases, but it is new for this virus.”
3. Where is the Zika virus now?
The Zika virus is now being locally transmitted in Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Cape Verde, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, Suriname, Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Venezuela, says the CDC.
4. 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.
5. What’s being done to stop Zika?
Researchers are hard at work in laboratories around the world trying to create a Zika vaccine. A clinical trial for a Zika virus vaccine could begin this year, according to Fauci.
“While in development, it’s important to understand we won’t have a vaccine this year or even in the next few years, although we may be able to have a clinical trial start this calendar year,” he said.
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.
Studies show local control is only marginally effective, since it’s so hard to get to all possible breeding areas.-CNN