The Zika virus, which causes microcephaly that prevents fetus’ brains from developing properly, is spreading across Latin America. Some areas have declared a state of emergency. Doctors have described it as “a pandemic in progress” and some are even advising women in affected countries to delay getting pregnant.
Brazil’s Health Ministry said on January 20 (local time) that 3,893 suspected cases of microcephaly were reported in Brazil, with 230 of them confirmed. The public health authorities of Brazil are currently investigating the exact cause of death of 46 babies with suspected microcephaly.
The Zika virus was first discovered in Uganda in 1947. Outbreaks of Zika virus have previously been reported in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. However, since the Zika epidemic first surfaced in Brazil last March, the Zika outbreak has entered a dangerous new phase.
According to recent reports, Zika virus transmission is ongoing in Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Suriname, Venezuela, etc. The U.S. National Institutes of Health said, “Its current explosive pandemic re-emergence is, therefore, truly remarkable.”
Zika is known to be transmitted via Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. If an Aedes aegypti mosquito bites a person infected with Zika virus, that mosquito contracts the virus, and when it bites another person, the virus spreads. This mosquito can transmit dengue fever and chikungunya virus as well as Zika virus. Whereas malaria-carrying mosquitoes are nocturnal, Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are mainly diurnal.
Although the Zika virus enters the human body, it rarely causes death. It is also known that only one of five people infected with the virus develops symptoms. The typical symptoms of Zika virus disease are fever, conjunctivitis, headache, rash, etc. There is no vaccine or medicine to treat the virus yet. So, doctors advise patients to get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids.
The biggest problem, however, is that if a pregnant woman is infected with the Zika virus, it can affect the growth of the fetus and cause microcephaly.
Babies with microcephaly have smaller-than-average heads, and their brains fail to grow at a normal rate. Their head circumference is less than 42cm at full growth. It is estimated that 25,000 children are born with microcephaly each year in the United States.
Children with microcephaly suffer from facial dysmorphism, intellectual disability, and developmental delay. The severity of symptoms may vary from person to person depending on their circumstances. However, if the brain does not develop fully enough to control vital functions, it can be fatal. Microcephaly can be caused by genetic factors or drug misuse during pregnancy, as well as by the Zika virus.
Brazil had fewer than 150 cases of microcephaly in all of 2014, but the number dramatically increased in 2015. Since last October, more than 4,000 suspected cases of microcephaly have been reported. It is not clear whether the cause of this increase in microcephaly is due to the Zika virus. According to the BBC report, however, some babies who died had the virus in their brain and no other explanation for the surge in microcephaly has been suggested yet.
Since there is currently no known cure or treatment for the Zika virus, the only thing you can do to protect yourself is to avoid mosquito bites. Health officials advise using mosquito repellents, wearing long-sleeved clothing, and keeping the doors and windows closed in houses. Additionally, they emphasize it is also important to keep in mind that mosquitoes generally lay eggs in stagnant water.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned pregnant women to avoid travel to regions with ongoing Zika virus outbreaks.