New Year, new public health threat

A little-known mosquito-borne virus, and affecting children, is causing one of the most alarming health crises to hit South America in decades.

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:34 pm IST

Published - January 02, 2016 11:38 pm IST

BIRTH DEFECT: The Ferreira family, in Poco Fundo, Pernambuco state, Brazil, watches over two-month-old son,Jose Wesley, who was born with microcephaly.

BIRTH DEFECT: The Ferreira family, in Poco Fundo, Pernambuco state, Brazil, watches over two-month-old son,Jose Wesley, who was born with microcephaly.

An obscure mosquito-borne virus, Zika, is on the prowl and has already caused an “unprecedent[ed] situation” in the world of scientific research. It stems from a huge surge in babies being born with microcephaly, a rare, incurable condition in which their heads are abnormally small. The disease is currently sweeping through Northeastern Brazil, with officials reporting at least 2,782 cases in 2015, as against 147 in 2014 and 167 in 2013. At least 40 infants have died so far.

What is Zika virus?

The virus gets its name from the Zika forest in Uganda, Africa, where it was first identified in rhesus monkeys in 1947. It was reported in humans in 1952 but was unknown in the Americas until last year. The virus is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is also responsible for the spread of dengue and chikungunya.

In the last few years, confirmed cases have been reported from Brazil, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname and Venezuela.

Why is this outbreak alarming?

The Zika virus was considered benign until recently when scientists, for the first time in November 2015, linked it to a surge in babies born with microcephaly — an incurable birth defect, they are born with abnormally small heads. According to Brazilian authorities, by the end of the year, Zika could infect over 1.5 million people. Further, the disease is spreading fast and experts believe it could spread to other countries in the Southern hemisphere. Puerto Rico reported its first case of Zika on Friday.

Outbreaks have also occurred in parts of Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. Because the Aedes species mosquitoes that spread Zika virus are found throughout the world, it is likely that outbreaks will spread to new countries.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States, and the Canadian government have issued travel advisories, warning tourists to protect themselves from mosquito bites. Further, the Brazilian government is advising women to delay pregnancies till the outbreak is under control.

What are the symptoms?

The most common symptoms are fever, rash, joint pain, or conjunctivitis (red eyes). Other symptoms include experiencing muscle pain, headache, pain behind the eyes, and vomiting. The virus causes a painful but temporary rash in adults. The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting for several days to a week but 1 in 5 people infected with the Zika virus become ill

How is it Zika treated?

There is no medicine as yet to treat Zika. According to the CDC, the condition can be managed and symptoms treated with patients being put on bed rest, increasing fluid intake and having fever medication.

Text by Vidya Krishnan

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