In 1947, a caged rhesus monkey in the Zika Forest of Uganda became feverish with what is now called the Zika virus.
Scientists researching yellow fever had stumbled upon something new.
Nearly 70 years later, this virus is making headlines. We first heard of the Zika virus when the media began reporting stories about infected newborns in Brazil.
Women were giving birth to thousands of babies with microcephaly, a condition where the newborn’s head is unusually small compared to the rest of the body. When microcephaly occurs, the brain is usually underdeveloped, which can cause severe developmental delays and, possibly, death.
In 2014, there were 150 babies in Brazil born with microcephaly. In 2015, there were 4000+ babies born with microcephaly.
Just as mosquitoes carry malaria, yellow fever, and other diseases, so too do they carry the Zika virus. Mosquitoes are vectors, which means they’re living organisms or critters that can carry disease from animals to humans or humans to humans. They accomplish this by sucking infected blood from an animal or human, and then injecting it into the next human on whom they decide to feed.
The typical symptoms of an infection with the Zika virus are, overall, fairly mild. They can include a rash, reddening of the eyes, fever, muscle or joint pain, and headache. These symptoms stick around for about a week, give or take a few days.
The disease does not normally require hospitalization, and death from this infection is rare.
At this time, there’s no way to prevent or even treat an infection with the Zika virus. Perhaps the only thing one could do would be to prevent mosquito bites, but getting through a year without at least a few bites is nearly impossible.
In areas where the Zika virus is common, some pregnant women are becoming infected and then passing that infection to the fetus during pregnancy, or possibly around the time of birth, according to the CDC.
The outbreak is so alarming that the CDC is advising pregnant women to postpone travel to many Latin American and Caribbean countries where reports of significant numbers of Zika infections are coming in.
This virus is a traveler. The World Health Organization expects the Zika virus to spread to every country in the Americas, except for Chile and Canada.
Some researchers are saying that the soonest a vaccine could be developed would be three years, possibly five. Prevention, for the time being, is in the hands of the individual. Mosquito nets and repellents are useful, as is ensuring there is no still water in the area. Community spraying could be beneficial.
It’s important to note that so far there has been no actual link found between the Zika virus and microcephaly. But clues are definitely pointing in that direction.
For more information, visit www.cdc.gov/zika.
By Trish Parnell
Image courtesy of CDC