Zika virus is a mosquito-borne disease transmitted by daytime-active mosquitoes known as Aedes mosquitoes.
The name “Zika” was borrowed from the location where the virus was first isolated, that is Zika Forest, Uganda in the year 1947. The virus is related to West Nile, dengue, Japanese encephalitis, and yellow fever viruses – all of which are mosquito-borne.
Symptoms associated with the Zika Virus
Before the current outbreak, Zika virus was not considered a major risk to human health as most of the infected people do not show symptoms. The few that do (about 1 in 5 people) exhibit mild symptoms that include: skin rashes, mild fever, muscle and joint pain, pink eye (conjunctivitis), headache or malaise.
All these symptoms clear out in 2 – 7 days without requiring treatment. A few recent revelations in the past few months have, however, showed that the Zika virus could be more harmful than previously thought, this has caused a lot of concern the world over.
Why is the Zika virus so dangerous?
If the symptoms are mild and wear off in just a few days on their own, why all the fuss? Well, scientists have recently identified a possible link between Zika infections and microcephaly in infants, a condition marked by abnormally small heads in new-born babies that could result in developmental problems.
In adults, scientist suspect that the virus could be the cause of a neurological disorder known as the Guillain-Barre syndrome. The disease affects the peripheral nervous system causing changes in sensation and pain before muscle weakness in the hands and feet begins. In severe cases, this autoimmune disease could cause permanent paralysis.
Although the virus has been around for several decades, it’s the first time it’s appearing at this magnitude in the Americas where it has reached pandemic levels in some states and has subsequently been classified as a global public health emergency by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Of the 29 currently affected countries, Brazil is the worst hit with the majority of microcephaly cases being reported there. In 2014, only about 150 cases of microcephaly were reported in Brazil. This number has increased exponential with more than 4,700 cases being reported since 22 October 2015. Only 404 of these cases have been confirmed so far with 3,670 being under investigation. The change is, however, noticeable and this is what is causing international concern.
How is Zika spread?
The virus is transmitted when an Aedes mosquito bites a person with an active infection and then spreads it by biting other people. All the bitten people will become carriers for the duration of time the symptoms are present.
(Image source: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-35370848)
The Centers For Disease Control (CDC) has reported a case in the United States where the virus was passed via sex. Isolated cases of the disease being transmitted through blood transfusion, laboratory exposure and during labour have also been documented.
What you can do to protect yourself from the Zika virus
To an overwhelming majority of people, the Zika infection is not harmful and should clear out in a few days. And although its association with Guillain-Barre syndrome is worrying, the complication is still rare. Epidemics of the virus increase the rate of occurrence of the Guillain-Barre syndrome from 1 out of 100,000 people per year to about 1 out of 5,000 people per year.
That being said, it’s still advisable to avoid infection. As there is no treatment or vaccine for Zika yet, the CDC recommends that pregnant women avoid travelling to countries where the Zika virus is active (up to date travel advisories can be found here: http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/notices/).
People (and especially pregnant women) travelling to affected countries should protect themselves from mosquito bites by:
- wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts
- Finding accommodation in buildings with air conditioning and screened windows.
- Sleeping under insecticide-treated mosquito nets when taking a nap – Aedes mosquitos are most active during the day
- Using clothing and gear that is permetherin treated.
- Applying insect repellents both indoors and outdoors, as Aedes mosquitos are also found inside.
Although the Zika virus is currently concentrated in the Americas and Caribbean, this could change with time as people travel from this areas to the rest of the world – the WHO estimates that about 3 – 4 million people will contract the virus this year. If your area of residence already has local transmission of Chikungunya or dengue (Also spread by Aedes mosquitos), the following steps should be taken to control mosquitos:
- Drain all standing water around your home and clear any containers that can hold water: mosquitos require standing water to breed.
- Make holes on the bottom your garbage cans to facilitate drainage and put pails upside down so that they do not collect water.
- Change water in flower vases often and drain excess water from flower pot plates: Mosquitos will also breed indoors if given the chance.
How to treat the Zika virus
A vaccine for the disease is still a few months away, if not years. For pregnant women who notice the symptoms or have travelled recently to affected areas, it is recommended that you consult a doctor. For the rest of the population, no specific medication is administered. Instead, the symptoms are treated by:
- Keeping hydrated by drinking a lot of fluids
- Taking medicine to reduce pain and fever – do not take non-steroidal anti-inflammatories or aspirin before dengue fever is ruled out.
Once you recover from the infection, you become immune to the Zika virus; for how long scientists still don’t have an answer.
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