A mysterious virus called Zika began to spread rapidly around the globe a few years ago, leading the World Health Organization (WHO) to issue a global emergency. The latest outbreak began in Brazil in May 2015 and has since affected at least 1 million people in more than 30 countries. Experts say the disease has “explosive pandemic potential” and could infect millions of more people, if precautions are not taken.
What is the Zika virus? Zika is a mosquito-borne illness named for the forest in Uganda where it originated. American and European scientists unintentionally discovered it in 1947 while studying a rhesus monkey for yellow fever. It did not appear in humans until 1952 when it was reported in Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania.
The first major outbreak of Zika occurred in Micronesia in 2007. There were just 49 confirmed cases and no hospitalizations. The next was 2013-2014 in French Polynesia, which resulted in a total of 19,000 suspected cases.
What happens to those infected? In one out of five cases, nothing! Only 20 percent of those infected show symptoms—the most common of which include fever, joint pain, red eyes, and a bumpy rash. The illness is generally mild, rarely fatal, and typically gone in a week.
Why is the virus so dangerous? Zika has been linked to two serious autoimmune and neurological complications. The first is microcephaly, a severe birth defect characterized by an abnormally small head. The underdeveloped brain can lead to a host of other problems, including behavioral delays, trouble walking, and blindness. There is no cure.
Second is Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a rare disorder in which the body’s immune systems attacks its own nerve cells, resulting in weakened muscles or, less commonly, paralysis. Some recover fully from GBS, while others have it for life.
How is Zika spread? The main route of transmission for the disease is Aedes mosquitoes—“yellow fever mosquitoes,” which are distinguishable through white markings on their legs. They are most active in the morning and evening; at night they hide in dark, cool places. Originating in Africa, they now fly on every continent but Antarctica.
Can Zika be sexually transmitted also? Yes, but it is unclear how often this happens. Previous to the current outbreak, scientists had identified just two cases of sexual transmission. But recently in Texas, authorities confirmed that a man had been infected after having sex with someone who just returned from Venezuela.
Is there a vaccine to fix this? Not yet. Several groups of scientists have been hard at work on Zika vaccines for the past few years, but none are close to getting their medicine on the market. An Indian biotech firm which claims to have two Zika vaccines has requested that the World Health Organization fast track the process of getting approval—which takes years.
How can we stop it? The CDC and WHO are adamant that, despite its ability to be spread by humans, mosquitoes are the “real culprit” of Zika. Experts worldwide have been weighing in on possible solutions, with some suggesting we eliminate the yellow fever species of mosquitoes. Others have a more ambitious vision: “Kill them all.”
Source material: CDC and the Daily Beast.