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Volume 66 Number 6

Zika virus poses concern to world population

by Laura Goy - 2016-04-27

Just as the world is beginning to recover from the global destruction caused by the Ebola virus, a new virus has emerged in the Americas with just as much potential for catastrophe.

In the past few months, talk of the new Zika virus has surrounded preparations for the upcoming Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the source of the outbreak. An estimated 1 million people have been infected since 2015, and up to 4 million could be infected by the end of the year.

The virus continues to rapidly spread throughout the Western Hemisphere, generating increasing global concern and fear. President Obama has asked Congress for $1.8 billion to combat the virus. On Feb. 1, the World Health Organization deemed the Zika virus a public health emergency of international concern.

So what exactly is this virus? How does it spread? Why is it so dangerous? How can we fight it?

The Zika virus is a mosquito-transmitted infection that spreads primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito, the same species that carries dengue, yellow fever and the West Nile virus. The virus can also be transmitted through sex and blood contact. The symptoms are very mild--fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes--and usually only last for several days to a week after initial infection. Due to the mild nature of the symptoms, many people don’t even realize that they have been infected, and few people get sick enough to visit the hospital. Eighty percent of those infected experience no symptoms at all, making it extremely difficult to diagnose the disease and extremely easy for the virus to spread. Though the effects of Zika on most people are mild and non-life-threatening, the real cause for fear is the virus’ effect on the babies of infected pregnant mothers. The disease has been linked to severe birth defects, such as brain damage and microcephaly, a condition where a baby has an abnormally small head and often a deformed brain. Children with microcephaly are prone to experiencing seizures, developmental delay, intellectual disability, physical disability, hearing loss and vision problems.

In Brazil, the number of babies with microcephaly has increased by 20 times since 2014, and multiple Brazilian babies with microcephaly have also been infected by the Zika virus. Four countries have recommended that their citizens delay pregnancy for a certain amount of months, even years.

The Zika virus was first discovered in Uganda in 1947, and it has circulated throughout Africa and parts of Asia for the past few decades. It was detected in the Western Hemisphere for the first time in Brazil last May. In less than a year, the virus has spread throughout Brazil, infecting an estimated 1.5 million people. Zika is currently active in more than 30 countries, including Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia and the Virgin Islands. A total of 153 cases of the virus have been reported in the United States, but they have all been as a result of traveling to foreign nations that house the virus, not through mosquito bites. The rapid spread of the virus led the World Health Organization to declare the virus an international public health emergency last month.

With the Olympics fast approaching, Brazil, the center of the outbreak, is clamoring to control the spread of the virus before August arrives. The lack of an existing treatment or vaccine makes this task nearly impossible. Currently, the best way to stop the spread of the virus is to stop the mosquitos. Brazil has declared that all venues where the games will take place, and the athlete villages, will be treated with insecticide. Brazil has also been one of the first regions to deploy genetically modified mosquitos. Some argue that Brazil should be able to reduce the risk of Zika to an acceptable level because the games take place during the colder months of the season. However, Brazil’s warm temperatures remain friendly to mosquitoes year-round. In addition, the virus’ ability to spread through sex means that many spectators will bring the virus back to their home countries, potentially transforming the outbreak into a global epidemic.

While it may seem like the outbreak is happening far away in another world, in less than a year the virus has reached Mexico. Analysts believe it is only a matter of time before the virus reaches the southern U.S., which has temperatures that are very hospitable to the Aedes mosquito. The U.S. needs to prioritize developing a vaccine in order to be ready to take on the virus when it arrives.


Article Keywords:

world, virus, zika, outbreak, people, infected, year, spread, health, through, mosquito, microcephaly, brazil, month

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