The Zika virus: everything you need to know

The Zika virus: everything you need to know


The Zika virus has recently been classified by the World Health Organization as a public health emergency of global concern, defined as “an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease and to potentially require a coordinated international response”.

Such a radical action has only been taken three times before in modern times, a fact that by itself speaks of the gravity of the situation. It is hoped that by raising global awareness, more funding and manpower will be mobilized in the fight against this dangerously, quick-spreading virus.

The virus is a mosquito-born pathogen that is carried by and transmitted through the same mosquitoes that carry other tropical illnesses such as dengue fever. The infection, known as Zika fever is usually accompanied by no or mild symptoms, similar to those of a mild form of dengue fever. The recommended treatment is rest.

Its name comes for the Zika forest of Uganda, where the virus was first isolated back in 1947. Since then, few cases have been reported within the equatorial belt from Africa to Asia. In the last couple of years, however, the virus has spread eastward, affecting regions like French Polynesia and Easter Island, and more recently Mexico, Central and South America.

Photo by Laris Karklis / The Washington Post
Photo by Laris Karklis / The Washington Post

According to the CDC, as of 2016, the virus cannot be prevented by the administration of drugs or vaccines. Also as of recently, there is evidence that links the Zika virus in pregnant women to brain defects in infants as well as a rare syndrome that can lead to paralysis.

There are also global concerns about the possibility of this virus being transmitted through intercourse or blood transfusions.

Brazil in particular is facing an overwhelming number of infections with the Zika virus – more than one million – and Brazilian authorities are coordinating their efforts with those of international health officials to fight back. The cases in Brazil also brought to light a suspicious link between the Zika virus and microcephaly in newborns.

As for the U.S., residents of Florida, New Jersey, Texas and several more states have tested positive for the Zika virus, all of whom have reportedly traveled to countries where the virus has been found in mosquitoes.

The CDC’s warning regarding this virus goes first and foremost to pregnant women, who must avoid traveling to countries where the reach of the virus is growing. Pregnant women are a priority because of the potential that the Zika virus has of affecting the unborn and causing serious defects.

As for the general population, if one must travel to one of the impacted countries, it is advisable to wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants and use insect repellent regularly.