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A previously little known mosquito-borne illness continues to spread throughout Latin America leaving fear and deformed babies in its wake, and it has now reached the continental U.S. The Zika epidemic is worsening in Brazil and the first case has been confirmed in a U.S. state (The virus was already found in Puerto Rico), in a woman in Texas who traveled to El Salvador in November.
The diagnosis of the woman in the Houston area has been confirmed, according to U.S. health officials. Government health officials are bracing for a possible influx of Zika in the U.S. this spring and summer. Besides Puerto Rico, the virus has also been reported in Mexico,
In Brazil, health authorities estimate that between 500,000 and 1.5 million people contracted the Zika virus since May 2015. Since the symptoms are often mistaken for a bad flu, so the exact numbers infected were initially uncounted. Now that thousands of babies have been born with brain damage to women who thought they had the flu, but really had Zika, Brazil’s Health Ministry and the public are keeping close watch on the growing numbers, particularly as the Southern Hemisphere heads into the height of its mosquito-prone summer season.
While not totally proved, health experts now believe that increasing numbers of women who gave birth to babies with microcephaly, undersized brains and skulls that ensure a life of developmental and learning problems, were highly likely to have been bitten by Zika-infected mosquitoes. There are now more than 3,530 babies born in Brazil in about the last six months with Zika-related cases of microcephaly, in 21 of the country’s 27 states. There have also been 46 infants with microcephaly who have died in the country in recent months.
This devastating outcome was not reported in previous outbreaks of the illness, which have been small and limited to Pacific Islands. However, it could be that the virus has mutated.
Brazil had approximately 150 babies born with microcephaly in a normal year, so the explosion of cases since mid-2015 forced the government to urge women not to get pregnant now. While not scientifically proven, “I can tell you that we have 100 percent certainty of the connection of the Zika virus with increasing cases of microcephaly in Brazil,” commented Brazil’s health minister Marcelo Castro.
The virus was first discovered in Africa in the 1940s near Uganda’s Zika Forest. It was extremely rare in humans until 2007 when it began hopping across islands in the Pacific.
The most common symptoms of the disease are fever, joint pain, a rash and red eyes, like in conjunctivitis. The virus can make a person feel ill from several days up to a week, and has no medications for treatment or vaccines. The disease rarely requires hospitalization.
As the Zika epidemic in Brazil worsens and the virus spreads to other areas such as the case in Texas, it will be hard to contain since many who are infected never become sick at all. Only 20 percent of those bitten by a disease-carrying mosquito get the virus.) The best way to avoid the virus (as well as dengue, West Nile and other viruses) is to prevent mosquito bites. Travelers who visit a country where viruses spread by mosquitoes have been reported and fall ill need to let health officials know right away (before sitting in a crowded Emergency Room or Urgent Care).
Written and edited by Dyanne Weiss
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Zika Virus
Reuters: Zika virus case confirmed in Texas; person traveled to Latin America
Wall Street Journal: Mosquito-Borne Zika Virus Gains Ground as Brazil Enters Height of Its Summer
Photo by James Gathany – PHIL, CDC — Creative Commons license