The Zika Virus is one of the most common news headlines these days, with alarming bylines including words such as threatening, nightmare, surge, outbreak, and microcephaly. We are all on edge and aware of this epidemic that is spreading through South and Central America like wildfire, and is creeping into the USA. I hear a lot of talk but minimal understanding of the infection, what it causes, and why it is terrifying. So, what exactly is the Zika Virus and what should we do?
Zika virus is an infection transmitted through the Aedes species of mosquitoes. It is related to dengue, yellow fever, and West Nile virus. This type of mosquito is day biting and is common within the U.S. in Florida, the Gulf Coast, and Hawaii. The virus has been around since 1947, mainly isolated in Africa and Asia. By way of the South Pacific Islands, Zika managed to jump its way into the Western Hemisphere where currently we are seeing a large outbreak in Brazil. This outbreak is spreading rapidly because majority of people in this region of the world do not have immune defenses against the virus.
Zika infection is on our radar because of a trend potentially linking Zika to microcephaly in newborn babies. Microcephaly is a disease where babies are born with small heads and usually brain damage. Seizures, impaired cognitive development, delayed motor functions, speech impediments and dwarfism are just a few of the problems that can arise from microcephaly. There are many other causes of microcephaly including rubella, toxoplasmosis, poisoning of the fetus by alcohol or drugs, diabetes, and Down syndrome. Although the evidence connecting the infection and microcephaly is only circumstantial, there has been a surge of babies born with the condition – nearly 4,000 cases have been reported compared to an annual 150 cases. Of these reported cases, only a few so far have direct links to Zika – only a few newborns with microcephaly have tested positive for the infection. Officials say it is still to early to claim a causal relationship between the virus and birth defects.
Why are we struggling to keep this infection under control? It’s been around for nearly 70 years, why are we just hearing about it now?
Zika was not considered a threat until recently. The symptoms of the infection are mild, especially compared to the symptoms of similar infections (dengue and chikungunya), which can be fatal. Only one in five people develop Zika symptoms, which include high fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes. Most people pass the infection in one to two weeks and are advised to rest and hydrate until it passes.
There is no testing for the Zika virus because it is so closely related to dengue and yellow fever that any individual who has been infected with either or has had the yellow fever vaccine may obtain a false positive. Also, in order for accurate testing, blood or tissue samples from the first week of infection must be analyzed via advanced molecular technology. Many countries where Zika is located do not have the most up-to-date methods to perform this testing. Furthermore, obtained samples are needed from such a short window that majority of people do not seek medical attention quickly enough, or do not show symptoms and do not know they have the virus. Many women may have the virus unknowingly, and even if they get an ultrasound, microcephaly cannot be detected until the end of the second trimester. Even if a child is not born with microcephaly, the virus is linked to other developmental defects such as vision and hearing. Our problem isn’t with the virus itself per say, more with the potential connection between the infection and birth defects.
But, that may not actually be true; there may be another fish to fry in this Zika mess. Although the population is too small to form any conclusive correlations, there seems to be a trend linking Zika to a rare autoimmune condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome. This syndrome causes temporary paralysis where the immune system attacks part of the individual’s nervous system and can potentially be life threatening. Guillain-Barre affects about 1 in every 100,000 people and is so rare that officials did not have to report it. Now hundreds of cases are reported and people are starting to raise a nervous eyebrow. While there is no cure for Guillain-Barre, there are treatments where majority of patients make a full recovery.
So what should we do here in the U.S. before it becomes an epidemic?
It is inevitable that Zika will reach the U.S. – well it already has. So far it seems that U.S. citizens with Zika acquired the infection while traveling abroad to regions where Zika is prevalent. Mosquito control is probably the best form of protection. In the U.S. Aedes mosquito’s breed mainly in trash, usually litter on the sides of the road, and small puddles of standing water. Also, with global temperatures rising, mosquitos are moving further north with the warmer temperatures. Protection against mosquitos such as using bug spray with DEET, staying inside in air conditioning, and wearing long pants and shirts are all helpful ways to avoid getting bitten. Aggressive anti-mosquito pest control measures will be key in attempting to avoid an outbreak.There is not much fear throughout the U.S. because the mosquito that transmits the disease most readily does not reach majority of the country. Also the time period that mosquitos are active in this country is only a few months out of the year. Currently, other than not traveling to regions where Zika is located (the list now includes 24 countries) and especially not getting pregnant if you do travel there, are probably your best bet for avoiding Zika and it’s complications. A vaccine is an illogical method of mediating this outbreak because vaccines can take years to produce and be approved.
After the criticisms of how poorly the Ebola outbreak was handled, officials across the globe are working to find an efficient solution to resolve the Zika Virus. Fingers crossed that an answer is discovered sooner rather than later, otherwise our future is looking a little meek.