After two intense weeks of covering media related matters for the Future City Competition Arizona Region, I am finally able to shift my focus and cover other topics, again. One of those topics that has been tugging for my attention the past two weeks is coverage of the Zika (pronounced Zee-kuh) virus.
[Featured Photo: The featured photo for this post was taken of Sagamore Bridge at Cape Cod Canal. (Photographer: Esther Heller)]
Why is this topic important now? According to the BBC [Ref 1], the Zika virus was discovered in monkeys in 1947 in Uganda’s Zika Forest, [and] the first human case [was] registered in Nigeria in 1954. For decades it did not appear to pose much of a threat to people and was largely ignored by the scientific community.
There were only 14 Zika virus cases reported around the world until an outbreak of the disease in Micronesia in 2007.
In May 2015, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) issued an alert regarding the first confirmed Zika virus infections in Brazil. Yesterday, the World Health Organization projected that the virus could infect up to 4 million people this year. Since the Zika outbreak was first identified in Brazil in May 2015, the country has recorded around 4,000 cases of microcephaly. Before 2015, Brazil had fewer than 200 cases per year.
Is There a Potential for a Pandemic? First, let’s recall what the definition of pandemic is. In an earlier post, Differentiating Between an Outbreak, Epidemic, or Pandemic, a pandemic is defined as a global disease outbreak. According to the BBC, “In the past year the virus [has] exploded, sweeping through the Caribbean and Latin America infecting probably a couple of million people.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the infectious diseases branch of the National Institutes of Health, says the outbreak is a pandemic. “You have multiple countries in South America and in the Caribbean, so by anybody’s definition that would be considered a pandemic.”
“If you have this much Zika in South America and the Caribbean, sooner or later we’re going to see a local transmission,” he said. Given the virus is already spreading through Central America, it’s just a matter of time before it reaches the United States.
Fauci said controlling mosquitoes that could carry Zika is key, and the United States has one big advantage. “Most of the United States goes through a real winter and that’s very, very important in containing mosquito-borne viruses,” he said. This is probably of the few times I will stand up and clap in praise of winter and cold weather.
How is the virus spread? Zika is a flavivirus. Most viruses in this family are carried by arthropods — mosquitoes and ticks. According to the Maricopa County Department of Health, the Zika virus is spread through mosquito bites. Stop! Not just any mosquito, but the Aedes mosquitoes which can also spread viruses such as dengue and cikungunya.
Humans become infected with Zika virus through bites from infected Aedes mosquitoes. As of mid-January 2016, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has issued a travel alert for those areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing: Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela and Puerto Rico.
What are the signs and symptoms of Zika virus? Approximately 1 in 5 people infected with Zika virus will become ill. Symptoms usually begin within a few days to two weeks after being bitten by an infected mosquito. The principal symptoms are:
- joint pain
- conjunctivitis (red eyes)
Other less common symptoms may include:
- muscle pain
- pain behind the eyes
What is the risk to pregnant women? Zika virus infection during pregnancy may lead to birth defects such as microcephaly (smaller than normal head size in infants due to incomplete brain development). For all of the reporting on the Zika virus over the past two weeks, scientists have yet to absolutely confirm if the virus is responsible for Brazil’s uptick in microcephaly cases. Only six of the 4,000 microcephaly cases in the country have been strongly linked to Zika virus via laboratory confirmation that the germ’s genetic material is present in the infant. [Ref 2]
Doctors have found Zika genetic material in fetal tissue, amniotic fluid surrounding the fetus and in the brains of newborns with microcephaly.
For sure, there will be at least one or two more posts on this topic. The start of the Summer Olympics are about six months away and hosted by the City of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Also, as the virus is expected to continue to spread throughout the Americas, those of us living in states along the southern perimeter of the U.S. are expected to see more cases of the virus.
For now, there is no vaccine for the Zika virus. Your best defense against contracting it is to take precautions to avoid mosquito bites.
- Zika virus could become ‘explosive pandemic’, in BBC News – U.S. and Canada online edition, January 28, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-35425731
- How does Zika virus shrink a baby’s brain and other FAQs, by Nsikan Akpan for PBS NewsHour, January 29, 2016,http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/zika-virus-faqs-ultrasound-detection/