The world has seen its fair share of epidemics and disease scares in recent years. Most of us remember the swine flu epidemic in 2009, and more recently the MERS crisis that moved from Saudi Arabia to South Korea. Topping the charts of disease-induced panic is of course Ebola, which affected several West African countries and caused national chaos in the US. Unfortunately, another disease may soon be joining the list—the Zika virus, which is silently and quickly making its way around the globe.
The Zika virus was discovered in Ugandan monkeys in 1947, and the first human case was recorded in Nigeria in 1954. In the seventies, Zika continued its slow spread to Pakistan and Malaysia, and in 2007 to Micronesia. So scientists and health officials have known about Zika for a long time, but it has never been considered a major threat until recently, when it arrived in Brazil and began to spread rapidly.
Zika is spread by infected Aedes mosquitos. About 1 in 5 people who carry the infection develop symptoms of Zika, which include fevers, rashes, and headaches. Although there is no known cure, most people with Zika aren’t ill enough to be hospitalized, and dying of the Zika virus is even rarer. So why then are the world’s health authorities, like WHO and the CDC, so concerned about Zika’s spread?
Surprisingly, Zika affecting adults is not a big concern. The worry is how Zika affects those yet to be born. Mothers who are infected with the Zika virus give birth to babies with microcephaly, a condition where the baby’s head is abnormally small. This leads to developmental issues and sometimes death for the newborn. This issue is particularly severe in Brazil, where 4,000 babies with microcephaly have been born to Zika-infected mothers since November 2015, a huge increase from only 146 cases of the same in 2014.
The fact that there is no cure to Zika has led some countries to declare drastic measures in order to stop the spread of the virus. Health officials in El Salvador, for example, are warning women and their partners to avoid pregnancy until 2018. Dr. Eduardo Espinoza, El Salvador’s Vice Minister of Health, says that this drastic order is only a secondary measure, since “these mosquitoes exist and transmit the disease” already. Even Jamaica has taken to issuing pregnancy warnings, although no Zika cases have yet been recorded.
Since the Zika virus is spread by mosquitos absorbing the virus from one host and transmitting it to another, avoiding pregnancy and being cautious while traveling to infected areas seem to be the only ways to avoid Zika. “We have to take an abundance of caution now to ensure we have a better understanding of what the relationship is [between Zika and microcephaly], and in the meantime protect women who are pregnant or may become pregnant,” agrees University of Toronto’s tropical infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch. Experts agree that the virus will soon spread throughout the Americas, with the only uninfected countries being Canada and continental Chile.