When was the last time you were bitten by a mosquito? You probably don’t remember when because it’s just a mosquito bite, right? Now, imagine that a mosquito bite could cause a birth defect in your baby.
Unfortunately, that’s a reality for pregnant women in countries like Brazil and the Zika virus could be to blame.
What is the Zika virus and what does it do?
The Zika virus is a microorganism that causes a viral fever like any other with a fever, muscle and joint pain and a headache. It could also cause a rash and conjunctivitis (red eyes). These symptoms are pretty mild and usually don’t last longer than a week. People usually don’t get sick enough to go to a hospital and rarely die of Zika.
How does it spread?
The Zika virus is typically transmitted through the bite of an infected Aedes aegypti mosquito (Yes, the same pest that transmits dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever). This mosquito is found in tropical regions throughout the world and can breed in a pool of water as big as a bottle cap.
Diagnosis and treatment
Zika virus disease may be suspected based on its symptoms and a recent history of having lived in or travelled to a place where the virus is known to be endemic. A diagnosis is confirmed only via lab testing for the virus in blood, urine or saliva. The disease is relatively mild and can be treated with fever and pain medication.
Why it’s scary
Now it seems like this is just another bug that could make you take a day off from work. That’s true because for most people, the Zika virus causes none or mild symptoms and causes no long-term harm. However, scientific evidence suggests that unborn children are the most at risk from complications related to Zika.
Last year, doctors in northern Brazil noticed a surge in the number of babies born with microcephaly – a condition where the head is abnormally small and is associated with incomplete brain development. Though the Zika virus can be transmitted from a mother to her foetus during pregnancy, it is not entirely confirmed whether the virus causes microcephaly. Microcephaly is not common and severe forms of it are life-threatening. There is no treatment for microcephaly and with over 4,000 infants being born with the condition since the Zika outbreak began in Brazil in early 2015, a significant part of an entire generation might not have normal brain function – possibly all because their mothers were bitten by a mosquito when they were pregnant. There is also a suspected link between people affected by the Zika virus and Guillain-Barré syndrome, another uncommon nervous system disorder that can cause paralysis.
While Brazil’s worst affected regions have declared a state of emergency, the WHO declared the Zika virus a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) on February 1st, 2016. The situation is terrifying enough for the government in El Salvador to ask women to avoid getting pregnant until 2018 to avoid having babies with birth defects as the Zika virus spreads across Latin America.
- Since Zika is spread by mosquitoes, the best method of its prevention is to control their breeding and remove their breeding sites, usually containers where water can collect like flower pots, used tyres and roof gutters.
- Personal protection by using insect repellants and mosquito nets is especially important as there is no vaccine for Zika.
- Travellers to places where Zika is prevalent should be cautious. Pregnant women and women trying to get pregnant should completely avoid travelling to those places which include about two dozen destinations mostly in the Caribbean, Central America and South America.
As the Director of the Centers for Disease Control said,
“Zika is new, and new diseases can be scary, particularly when they affect the most vulnerable among us.”
Written by: Aishwarya Vishwanath