‘Zika Can Break Out Anywhere,’ Expert Warns

Brazilian physician says disease is here to stay

In a report from the global news agency AFP, the Brazilian doctor who first linked the Zika virus to brain damage in infants warns that wealthy countries are not safe from the disease and urges them to increase research funding.

Dr. Adriana Melo, an obstetrician, was the first person to make the connection between an outbreak of Zika virus in Brazil and a surge in babies born with microcephaly. Melo, who works at the heart of the outbreak in the northeast Brazilian city of Campina Grande, sent her first sample of amniotic fluid in for Zika testing in November 2015. The positive result—the first of many for mothers whose babies had the debilitating neurological condition—sparked a chain reaction of alarm that culminated in February 2016, when the World Health Organization declared that the Zika outbreak constituted an international public health emergency.

Melo said the world has not done enough since then to understand and fight this “neglected” disease. She urged wealthy countries to “wake up” to recent findings that Zika, which is typically spread by tropical mosquitoes, can also be transmitted sexually, and possibly through other bodily fluids.

“We know there are other transmission vectors and that [Zika] can break out anywhere, in any country,” she told AFP in an interview in Rio de Janeiro during an international Zika conference. “It’s a disease that doesn’t interest rich countries much because they think it won’t reach them,” she said. “But it’s a risk to underestimate this virus.”

Melo called for more clinical studies of the Zika virus, which has been linked not only to microcephaly in babies but also to Guillain-Barré syndrome, a potentially deadly neurological disorder, in adults.

There is no treatment or vaccine for the virus, which has mild, flu-like symptoms that belie its potentially devastating effects.

Brazil has been the country hit hardest by the Zika crisis, with 1.5 million people infected and more than 2,000 babies born with brain damage. The disease, which originated in Africa, has swept Latin America and the Caribbean since it was first detected in Brazil last year. “Traveler's Zika”—cases brought back by people who spent time in affected countries—also reached Europe and the United States. Then, last July, U.S. health authorities announced that locally transmitted Zika cases had been detected in Florida.

Meanwhile, warnings were emerging that tropical mosquitoes were not the only vector for the disease. In February 2016, the U.S. reported a case of sexual transmission in Texas. Dozens more followed. Recent research indicates that the virus can also be spread through tears or sweat.

Melo warned health authorities not to take their eyes off the epidemic, even though the number of cases has diminished as mosquito populations have declined during the southern hemisphere’s winter.

“We need to use this moment of calm, after the explosion of 2015, to push ahead with research on the virus,” she said. “The current reduction in cases doesn’t mean the virus isn’t there. We still know very little about it. We don’t know if the virus can reactivate or mutate, like dengue fever, which now has four subtypes.”

“We need to better study this disease, which is here to stay,” she added.

Source: Medical Xpress; November 9, 2106.