Odds are that those reading this article had never heard of the Zika virus a few months ago even though the obscure mosquito-borne disease has been around for nearly 70 years. But the disease is running rampant in Latin America, now being found in the U.S. and is blamed for creating thousands of children with birth defects. Unlike Ebola, SARS and many other viruses that have created wide spread fear, however, Zika is stealthy. Approximately 80 percent of those who are infected do not know it. If they do become ill, the symptoms can be as mild as a cold. However, the implications for any pregnant woman and the fetus can be devastating.
Public health officials suspect women infected with Zika while pregnant is responsible for nearly 4,000 babies born with birth defects in Brazil. That country’s government as well as health officials in several other nations, such as Colombia, El Salvador and Jamaica, have told women in their populace to not become pregnant during the current epidemic.
The virus is primarily transmitted by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which also transmit dengue and chikungunya. Unfortunately, that species of mosquito is found in a significant portion of the world. The current outbreak is affecting 22 countries, mostly in Latin America and the Caribbean. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the epidemic is expected to spread to every country in the Americas except for Canada and Chile (which are too cold for the species to flourish but could have residents affected to visit elsewhere), It has spread so fast that only 11 countries were reporting cases a mere month ago.
Today, President Barack Obama called for accelerating research to diagnose, prevent and treat the Zika virus after meeting with public health officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Health and Human Services Department. They discussed steps being taken to protect Americans and how the virus could potentially affect the economy and development throughout the Americas.
Zika had been detected in U.S. Caribbean territories and a baby was born in Hawaii with the microcephaly birth defect, after the mother traveled to Latin America during the pregnancy. That led U.S. officials to recommend that pregnant women postpone trips to areas affected by outbreaks of the disease. American, United, LAN and Tam airlines have announced they will allow customers to cancel or postpone trips, without fees, to areas affected by the mosquito-borne virus.
Now, officials are now bracing themselves for the epidemic to spread into the continental states. There have already been people diagnosed in Arkansas, California and Virginia.
The NIH director, Francis Collins, indicated that a study showed that about 200 million people (over 60 percent of the U.S. population) are in areas that could potentially be affected by the virus. “In addition, another 22.7 million people live in humid, subtropical parts of the country that might support the spread of Zika virus all year-round, including southern Texas and Florida,” Collins noted.
The CDC has issued guidelines for doctors on situations that call for Zika testing and when to do fetal ultrasounds looking for the brain defects found in babies born to Brazilian women who were infected. They also issued guidelines for pediatricians caring for infants born to mothers who traveled to or resided in an area with Zika virus outbreaks during their pregnancy.
Written and edited by Dyanne Weiss
World Health Organization: Zika virus
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Zika Virus
Reuters: Factbox: 12 facts about the Zika virus as outbreak spreads in the Americas
Miami Herald: U.S. babies should be tested for Zika virus, CDC says
USA Today: United, American to offer refunds for travel to Zika-affected regions
The New York Times: The Latest: Doctor Calls for More Zika Info in Venezuela
Los Angeles Times: First Zika virus case confirmed in L.A. County
Photo courtesy of Montse PB’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons license