Just when Ebola fears are waning, another epidemic is creating considerable fear and extreme precautions as it spreads in South America – Zika. Brazil, the continent’s largest country, declared a national emergency as they battle a massive outbreak of the Zika virus, which is spread by mosquitos and sexual intercourse. Thousands of babies have been born with brain damage that health officials believe to be related to pregnant women catching Zika, which has led the government to warn women in Brazil not to get pregnant now because of the epidemic.
Zika is a flavivirus related to yellow fever, dengue fever, chikungunya, and West Nile that was first discovered in 1947 in a monkey in the Zika Forest of Uganda. For 60 years, there were only 14 confirmed cases of humans catching the disease. However, in 2007, it somehow spread to the Yap Island in the Pacific Ocean where it was so highly contagious within a few months an estimated 75 percent of the 11,000 people living on the island had gotten ill. The virus resurfaced in 2013 in Tahiti, then spread to other islands in the Pacific. Officials are unsure how many people in Brazil have been infected with Zika because most do not require hospitalization.
No vaccine exists for the virus, which was first identified in Brazil in May 2015. Symptoms can include a fever, rash, headaches, vomiting and joint pain for up to a week. The virus is usually not lethal (there were 40 deaths in Brazil this year) and is treated like the flu with bed rest and plenty of liquids. In severe cases, it morphed into Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disorder. However, there is growing concern that pregnant women who catch Zika need to worry for their baby’s safety because an epidemic of birth defects has correlated with the epidemic of Zika.
Public health experts think there is a strong possibility that the Zika virus outbreak led to an explosion of microcephaly cases. Microcephaly is normally a rare condition in which babies’ brains do not grow properly and they are born with shrunken skulls. Experts point out that microcephaly has not been linked to previous outbreaks of the virus before, but no outbreak has been this widespread (currently affecting 19 of Brazil’s 26 states).
On Tuesday, Dec. 22, Brazilian health officials reported that as of Dec. 19, suspected Zika-related microcephaly cases appeared around the same time as the epidemic and 2,782 brain-damaged babies were born. In 2014, there were only 147 microcephaly cases all year. Most of the birth mothers acknowledged having Zika-like symptoms during the early stages of their pregnancy. This led to the government to suggest that families put off pregnancy plans.
In one hard-hit Brazilian state, Pernambuco, over 900 cases of microcephaly have been reported this year. The newborns will require special attention their entire lives. As one health expert noted, “Here in Pernambuco, we’re talking about a generation of babies that’s going to be affected.”
There are other potential causes of microcephaly in babies, such as genetic abnormalities, exposure to toxins and maternal alcohol abuse. But the strong suggestive link between the Zika epidemic and brain deformities has pregnant women in Brazil living in fear and officials warning others not to have babies for now.
Written and edited by Dyanne Weiss
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Possible association between Zika virus and microcephaly
Washington Post: Bumpy rash, achy joints, inflamed eyes? There’s a new disease in town.
Wall Street Journal: Spreading Virus Adds to Brazil’s Woes
CNN: Brazil warns against pregnancy due to spreading virus
Washington Post: Brazil declares emergency after 2,400 babies are born with brain damage, possibly due to mosquito-borne virus
Photo by Chensiyuan – Creative Commons license