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4 Things You Should Know About the Zika Virus

Since late last year, the international community has been aggressively working to combat Zika, a virus primarily spread by mosquitos that has recently been linked to birth defects and other concerning health outcomes.  Cases of this emerging infectious disease are soaring in the Americas and “spreading explosively,” according to World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Margaret Chan, MD.  Several states are reporting cases of U.S. travelers bringing the infection back with them, and health officials in Texas have confirmed a case of sexual transmission of the virus.  According to the New York Times, as many as four million people could be infected by the end of the year.

For most people, the mosquito-borne illness causes only brief, mild flu-like symptoms.  However, in pregnant women it has been linked to an alarming increase in the rate of the birth defect known as microcephaly — a debilitating small head and brain size.  According to Dr. Hannah Tully, a neurologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital who specializes in brain malformations, “there is no way to fix the problem, just therapies to deal with the downstream consequences”.  Furthermore, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are currently researching a possible connection between Zika and Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS).  “With GBS, the immune system goes array and starts attacking the body’s nerves, which leads to weakness that can snowball into temporary paralysis,” according to Time.  The clusters of birth defects linked to the Zika virus are an international public health emergency, according to the WHO.  Dr. Chan characterizes the situation as an “extraordinary event and a public health threat to other parts of the world.”

A travel alert was posted by the CDC advising pregnant women to delay travel to areas where Zika is active.  The travel alert list continues to expand and now includes 30 countries or territories, most of them in the Americas.  Officials have declared a state of emergency in Puerto Rico, where at least twenty-two people have been reported to have been infected by Zika.

Here are several facts about the Zika virus:

1. What is the virus, and how do you catch it?

The Zika virus is a pathogen that can be transmitted through a mosquito bite.  To date, a person must be exposed to a mosquito that is carrying the virus in order to be infected with it. Additionally, the virus can also be sexually transmitted.  A person in Texas became infected after having sex with someone who had recently returned from Venezuela, according to Texas health officials.  Condom use can protect you against infection.  If you are pregnant and your partner has been exposed to mosquitoes in regions that have Zika, you should talk with your doctor.

2. Symptoms of Zika virus infection are usually mild.

Eighty percent of people who become infected never have symptoms.  In those who do, the most common Zika virus symptoms are fever, rash, joint pain and red, irritated eyes.   Health experts at the WHO Regional Office for the Americas note that symptoms generally last two to seven days. No effective treatment is available for Zika infection, but over-the-counter fever or pain medication can be helpful for symptom relief.

3. How can we protect ourselves against it?

With no vaccine or treatment available, the only protection against Zika is to avoid travel to areas with an active infestation of the virus.  According to Michael Anagarone, assistant professor of medicine in infectious disease at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a Northwestern Medicine physician, anyone who is traveling to countries where the Zika virus is circulating needs to take necessary precautions to prevent mosquito bites.”  Prevention methods include staying inside where there is air conditioning and screens, using mosquito repellant, wearing long sleeves and long pants.  The CDC recommends using repellent containing at least 20 percent DEET, picaridin, oil of lemon-eucalyptus, or IR3535.

4. Where did the Zika virus originate?

The mosquito-transmitted virus was first discovered in April of 1947 in a rhesus macaque in the Zika forest in Uganda by Alexander Haddow and George Dick.   Researchers there found that it lived in mosquitoes, and they learned through experimentation that it could also infect mice.  Outbreaks were reported from 1951 to 1981 throughout Africa and Asia, and in 2007 in Polynesia where 73 percent of the populations were infected. But since the first case was discovered in Brazil in 2014, the virus has spread like wildfire.  According to CNN, many scientists believe the 2007 strain of the mosquito-borne virus has mutated from the original virus discovered in Uganda, with increased malignity.

With the 2016 summer Olympic Games approaching in Rio de Janeiro, public health experts are concerned that the mosquito-borne virus may spread far beyond Latin America.  The World Health Organization expects Zika to spread to all but two countries in the Americas: Canada and Chile.  While many Americans expressed concern about travel to Latin America, a Reuters poll showed that nearly half (48 percent) had not changed the likelihood of them visiting affected areas, while the others did not know.  With the possible link to birth defects, preventing the rapidly spreading Zika virus is critical, especially for women in their childbearing years.

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