The Zika Virus Epidemic

What is Zika virus disease?

Zika is a disease caused by the Zika virus that is primarily spread to people through an infected mosquito bite. It was first detected in 1974 in Uganda, but has never resulted in an outbreak of this scale until it was recently recorded in Brazil in May 2015. There has been research that there is growing risk of a link to microcephaly, which is a neurodevelopment disorder which results in an abnormal smallness of the head and is associated with incomplete brain development.

What are the symptoms of Zika?

Most cases result in no symptoms, thus it is difficult to test for, whilst there is also no cure. However, the most common symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis.

World Health Organisation (WHO) officials have stated that between 500,000 and 1.5 million people in South America have been infected and the virus has spread to more than 20 other countries in the region, including Paraguay, French Guiana, Guyana and Venezuela. Moreover, the Zika virus has just recently been declared a global health emergency by WHO, where the epidemic has been noted to be of the same extremity as HIV, Ebola and SARS. This quick decision is partially a result of past accusations over the organisations extremely slow response to the recent Ebola outbreak, and thus, spurred a sooner and more definite response.

A case of the Zika virus has just been reported in the U.S, by sexual transmission, not a mosquito bite. A patient was confirmed to have the virus by The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Dallas County, Texas after having sexual contact with another person who returned from the country where the disease is present. This is significant as it is now evident the virus can be transmitted through sexual contact and thus, allows increased protection and education of the Zika virus, in the hope to decrease the rate of the epidemic. However, it is estimated that between 3 and 4 million people in the Americas could be infected with the virus, as the El Niño weather pattern is expected to increase mosquito populations in many areas and thus, lead to increased spread.

A little more information on microcephaly:

  • original_microcephalyMicrocephaly- ‘a birth defect where a baby’s head is smaller thanexpected when compared to babies of the same age and sex’. Babies whom suffer from microcephaly often have smaller brains that are underdeveloped, whichcould result in a range of problems.These problems include: seizures, developmental delay (such as problems with speech), intellectual disability, problems with balance and movement, feeding problems, hearing loss and vision problems.
  • In the last 6 months, an estimated 4000 babies with microcephaly have been born in Brazil, which scientist have closely related to the Zika virus.
  • There has been a rapid increase in female infanticide and illegal abortions over worries that the baby will be born with microcephaly.

What has been proposed to stop this epidemic?

  • Currently 220,000 members of Brazil’s extensive police force are going from door-to-door to help eradicate the virus whilst mosquito repellent and nets have been distributed by the government to all pregnant women on benefits.
  • Avoid getting bitten. Although this is easier said than done, it is advised that people cover up and spray any exposed skin with DEET, however, some people who can’t afford these precautions are at risk and as a result, aid for those endangered by the virus is extremely important.
  • Eliminate mosquitoes. The Aedes species mosquitoes live in mainly urban areas, where they lay eggs and are most active in Zika-virus ater pooled places such as plant pot saucers and backed gutters. This breed of mosquito, associated with yellow fever too, was sprayed with DDT in the 1960s in the aim of elimination, however, this strategy would be harder to implement now as many of the mosquitoes survived and today DDT is widely banned.
  • Modified mosquitoes. There are already high-tech eradication methods in the works, where the most advanced involve making genetically modified mosquitoes whose offspring die as larvae, which relies on regular release of this genetically modified breed of males to reduce the population. It is already evident that the number of native mosquitos in Brazil has decreased by 95% within the last 6 months.
  • Make a vaccine. Research into a live dengue vaccine has already reached large-scale trials, and thus, a similar approach can be taken for Zika.

It is too soon to see whether any of these prepositions will be successful, however, as the epidemic is now considered a global health emergency,which will ensure a united response, and with research into new vaccines underway, developments against the race of the Zika virus are surely not far away.

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