In 1947, researchers investigating yellow fever in East Africa discovered a new virus—Zika—in a sick monkey. The scientists never imagined that 70 years later this virus would spread across several continents, forcing the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare the epidemic a “public health emergency of international concern.”
Since the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in August 2016, media coverage of the Zika virus has slowed to a trickle. Nevertheless, there are four reasons why health care professionals and the public should not forget about Zika, according to an article posted on the Conversation website.
1. The Epidemic Isn’t Over
Zika virus transmission continues in 79 countries on five continents: Africa, Asia, Oceania, and North and South America. To date, only five areas have managed to eradicate the virus: French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, Chile’s Isla de Pascua, New Caledonia, and Vanuatu. According to the WHO, another 64 countries are at risk of Zika infection because they have well-established populations of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, the primary carriers of the virus.
2. Zika Causes More Than Microcephaly in Infants
Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed that Zika causes microcephaly in newborns in 2016, scientists have discovered that the virus crosses the placenta during pregnancy and infects unborn babies, causing a wide range of health problems, including seizures, calcifications in the brain, eye abnormalities, feeding difficulties, and defects of the heart, genitals, and urinary and digestive systems. These complications have been grouped under the heading “congenital Zika virus syndrome.”
In some cases, Zika virus infection can lead to a miscarriage or cause the newborn infant to die. Unfortunately, the spectrum of injuries that the Zika virus may cause in newborns is still unknown, as some nerve damage may not become apparent until later in life.
3. Infected Adults Can Experience More Than a Mild Fever
For most people, being infected by the Zika virus is like having a mild case of the flu coupled with a rash. The symptoms usually clear up within three or four days. But in a few cases, Zika infection can also cause severe nerve damage, as noted during an outbreak in French Polynesia in 2014. Zika is known to trigger Guillain–Barré syndrome, a disorder in which a person’s immune system attacks his or her peripheral nerves. This can cause movement problems in the limbs or even death if the virus affects nerves connected to muscles in the chest and respiratory system.
Researchers have also found that the Zika virus can cause other severe neurological problems, including encephalitis, meningoencephalitis, myelitis, neuromyelitis optica, and acute disseminated encephalomyelitis.
4. The Social Impact of Zika Has Been Devastating
Zika virus continues to have a devastating effect on pregnant women and their babies around the world. In response, some governments have advised women to avoid pregnancy for several months after exposure to potentially Zika-infected mosquitos. Such a plan is impractical, however, because more than 40% of pregnancies worldwide are unplanned, according to the article. or highly restricted in many countries affected by the Zika virus, leaving vulnerable women with few options. This has led to an increase in illegal abortions in Latin America, with severe risks for the health of the mother.
Source: The Conversation; April 13, 2017.