The World Health Organization classified the Zika virus outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern in February 2016. This was the virus’s first time causing such alarm within the medical community despite being discovered in 1947. Much of Central and South America, some of North America, and parts of Southeast Asia, particularly the Pacific Islands, were affected.
The WHO softened its stance on the Zika virus in November 2016, pronouncing it to no longer be a global emergency after recognised rates of infection started to decline. The Zika virus remains a significant risk, particularly for pregnant travellers abroad who have never been exposed since it is still widespread in several parts of the world.
In light of this, let’s examine the Zika virus in more detail, including its mode of transmission, symptoms, and geographic distribution.
What is the Zika Virus?
The Zika virus is a member of the Flaviviridae virus family. It was initially found among animals in the Zika Forest in Uganda in 1947. In 1952, also in Uganda, a human case was first documented. Despite having its roots in Africa, the virus has spread over several decades to a wide range of places, especially those with warmer conditions.
The virus is predominantly spread by an Aedes mosquito, which must consume blood in order to deposit its eggs. However, this is only one way that the virus can spread. There has been evidence of sexual transmission of the virus throughout its history. There have also been instances of vertical transmission, sometimes known as mother-to-child transmission, in which a pregnant woman infected with the virus transmits it to the unborn child, posing the potential dangers detailed below.
The Zika virus can also spread from person to person through blood transfusions where the virus was not found in the blood donor’s sample prior to the transfusion. This is less common however.
What are the Symptoms of the Zika Virus?
The majority of the time (about 60–80%) an infected person will show little to no symptoms of infection, making it very challenging for virologists to monitor the virus’s development. For the length of an infection, a person may not experience any symptoms, allowing them to remain unaware that they ever had an infection. Because infected persons won’t take the essential steps to stop them from spreading the virus, this could make the virus easier to spread.
Stronger cases of the virus can cause symptoms that have been compared to a “small dosage of influenza,” such as muscle aches and pains, red, itchy eyes, swollen glands, and skin rashes.
Women who are pregnant should be concerned about one particular risk related to the Zika virus. There have been examples reported that strongly imply the virus has been transmitted vertically, from mother to foetus. According to the most recent study, a foetus has a 5–11% chance of acquiring a major neurological disorder such Guillain–Barré syndrome or microcephaly. [See citations below]
How do I Protect Myself from the Zika Virus?
Though some are at various phases of clinical trial, there is presently no vaccine to defend against the Zika virus.
As simple as it may seem, the best method to protect yourself from the virus is to stay away from places where there have been documented occurrences of Zika. As previously indicated, South and Central America, Africa’s equatorial regions, and the area surrounding the Pacific Islands are the main danger zones for the virus. Usually, there is a significant chance that Zika is prevalent in an area if Dengue cases are being recorded there.
There are other precautions you might take if travel to any of these places is inevitable. The risk of mosquito bites and subsequent infection should be decreased by covering exposed skin and using an effective mosquito repellent.
Additionally, it is suggested to employ some sort of barrier protection when having sex in affected areas to prevent the possibility of sexual transmission of the illness from an asymptomatic partner.
Visit the TMB website here for further details on the best practices for handling the Zika Virus.
Guillain Barré Syndrome
Zika and Microcephaly