The last time I saw the internet exploding with the onset of a virus was when Ebola had created ripples in Africa and the rest of the world.
And now, it is the Zika virus – already suspected to have affected thousands of babies in Brazil, Zika is making headlines the world over – for all the wrong reasons.
Humanity has battled several pandemics before. Will it be able to do so again?
1. What Is The Zika Virus?
The Zika virus is an infection transmitted by the Aedes mosquito, which belongs to the same family of mosquitoes that cause dengue, chikungunya, the West Nile virus, and yellow fever.
First discovered in the Zika forest in Uganda way back in 1947, it is a common disease in Africa and Asia. The Zika virus became widespread in the western hemisphere only recently – with an outbreak occurring in Brazil last May.
2. Why Is It So Serious?
Zika virus is commanding the focus of the world media due to its suspected connection with microcephaly – a neurological disorder that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains. This can result in serious developmental issues, and sometimes, even death.
Since last November, there have been 404 confirmed cases of microcephaly in the newborns in Brazil – out of which, 17 cases have a confirmed link with the Zika virus. Till now, 15 babies have died from microcephaly, and 5 of those deaths have been linked to the Zika virus.
There are about 3,670 more suspected cases the authorities are investigating. And if a majority of them is linked to Zika, we will be facing serious trouble.
Another condition called the Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare autoimmune disorder causing paralysis, has also been linked to Zika in several countries.
3. How Does The Virus Spread?
Zika is already present in about two dozen countries in the Americas, and according to WHO, it is likely to spread to all the countries in the Americas.
The virus is spread through the mosquitoes belonging to the Aedes genus, which can breed in a pool of water as small as a bottle cap, and generally bite during the day.
Most of the Zika cases have been spread by Aedes aegypti, the aggressive yellow fever mosquito. Aedes albopictus, the Asian tiger mosquito, has also been found to spread the virus, although how efficiently is unknown.
4. And How Fast?
Talking about how fast it spreads, we must take chikungunya into consideration. Until 2005, the disease didn’t exist outside Africa and parts of Southeast Asia. But after that, it spread rapidly across the Caribbean, and Central and South America in just a matter of months.
But there is some good news for the US. Zika is spread only through a certain species of mosquitoes, and hence doesn’t have many places to inhabit (unlike the West Nile virus that lives in birds and infects many species of mosquitoes).
5. Can The Virus Be Sexually Transmitted?
According to experts, most Zika virus infections are those that are transmitted by mosquitoes, and not sex. The possibility of the virus being sexually transmitted is quite rare. As of February 2nd this year, there have been only three instances where the virus was found to be sexually transmitted:
- In 2008, a scientist returned to Colorado after having studied malaria in Africa, and had infected his wife before developing the symptoms himself. The couple contracted rashes, fever, and headaches. Blood tests revealed a year later that they had had Zika.
- In 2013, live virus was found in the semen of a 44-year-old man from Tahiti.
- In February, Texas health officials had found that a traveler who had returned to Dallas from Venezuela had infected a sexual partner.
6. Where Is The Zika Virus Right Now?
According to WHO and CDC, following are the regions where the Zika virus is locally transmitted –
Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Cape Verde, Colombia, Costa Rica, Curacao, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Martinique, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, Suriname, Samoa, Tonga, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Venezuela.
Though Zika has arrived in the US, it is only through the people who had returned from these areas. The concern remains, however, if the virus would start getting transmitted locally in the US.
7. What Are The Symptoms Of This Virus?
People infected with Zika virus have mild fever, muscle and joint pains, skin rashes, and fatigue. But the downside is, over 80 percent of infected individuals never develop any symptoms.
In other words, Zika virus is a silent infection that is hard to diagnose.
And the upside is the infection doesn’t cause any lasting harm in adults.
8. Is There A Test That Helps One Know If They Are Infected?
Generally speaking, no.
This is because only one of every five infected individuals develops symptoms in the first place. And those who develop symptoms don’t have to be hospitalized as they are only mild.
However, in case you have the symptoms and want to confirm if it is of Zika virus, you can send either your blood or tissue sample taken in the first week of contracting the infection to an advanced laboratory. The virus can be detected through advanced molecular testing.
9. Is There A Treatment For Zika? And Is There A Vaccine?
No and no.
There is no any particular antiviral medicine suggested by experts that can treat Zika virus. The symptoms are only mild, and all a person needs for recovering are adequate rest, nourishment, and care.
Talking about vaccination, efforts to develop one have just begun – and it might take months or even years before it is available in the market.
10. How Can People Protect Themselves From The Virus?
Firstly, don’t panic. Panicking has never saved anybody from anything. So stay calm.
As there is no treatment or vaccine available, the only possible way to prevent the infection is avoiding traveling to areas that are actively infested.
But in case you are to travel to a region that has Zika, make sure you take the following measures –
- Use an EPA-approved repellent.
- Wear long pants and long sleeve shirts that are thick.
- Stay and sleep in air-conditioned or screened rooms.
- Put on shoes and hats.
- Use mosquito nets while indoors.
If you happen to return from an infested region, remember to go for a check-up right away.
Help Center For Pregnant Women
– What if a woman who is pregnant now had visited one of the Zika-affected regions in the past? Is there any risk?
According to experts, the risk is very low. Excluding rare exceptions, the virus doesn’t stay in the body. Also, those who recover from the infection are immune to the infection.
– In which part of a woman’s pregnancy would a Zika attack be the most dangerous?
The earlier stages of pregnancy could be the most dangerous. To be specific, it is during the first trimester, when most women don’t even realize they are pregnant.
– If a woman is of childbearing age but not pregnant (and not planning to get pregnant either), can she travel to an affected country?
Yes, but only if she uses birth control religiously.
– What should a pregnant woman do if she had recently visited a country with Zika virus?
Blood tests and ultrasound scans are the rule of the hour. However, the results may not be reassuring as the tests for the virus work only in the first week of the infection. And an ultrasound can’t detect microcephaly before the end of the second trimester.
So the best option is – take precautions and avoid traveling to areas infested with the Zika virus.
Yes, Zika virus is turning out to be a pandemic. The virus, along with the infection, is also spreading fear, misinformation, and confusion. It’s time we got the facts right and did what must be done.
Coming back to what we had been talking about, humanity has battled several pandemics before. Will it be able to do so again?
Well, undoubtedly yes. It always has. It always will.