The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Zika virus outbreak “to be a global public health emergency” on Feb.1. The virus, which is spread by the same mosquito that carries Dengue and other diseases, has spread to at least 29 countries and is “…moving at lightning speed across Latin America,” says WHO.
The Zika virus itself is not normally particularly harmful to the recipient, however, according to the WHO, this most recent outbreak has been linked to “an increase in cases of microcephaly and/or Gillian-Barre syndrome (GBS),” in infants most notably in “Brazil, French Polynesia, El Salvador, Venezuela, Colombia, and Suriname.” It is the connection between the virus and these birth defects that has raised worldwide alarm.
The connection between the Zika virus and microcephaly was unknown before this outbreak. Babies born with this neurological disorder have abnormally small heads, which causes severe developmental issues and can result in death. It is passed to the infant when the mother is pregnant. Part of what makes this trend so alarming is that 80% of people who contract the Zika virus show no symptoms and do not know that they have the virus. This makes treatment more difficult for pregnant women.
In the United States, the majority of the cases have come from people who recently traveled to infected countries. The domestic worry is if these cases could cause an increase in locally transmitted cases. A similar kind of mosquito to the one that carries the Zika virus also lives in the US.
Health workers are unsure if this mosquito could become a domestic carrier. If this were to happen, a model projects that about 63% of Americans live in areas where the disease could spread in warmer months. The WHO has estimated that within the next year, about three to four million people in the Americas will be infected with the virus.
Brazil has the most significant number of outbreaks. Since November 2015 there have already been 404 confirmed cases of birth defects, and at least 17 linked to the Zika virus. At least 15 infants have already died due to birth defects related to the virus, and another 56 cases are being investigated. In comparison, in 2014, there were only 146 cases in Brazil.
What may be even more alarming for the spread of the virus, is that the mosquitoes “have adapted to breed in urban areas,” says the WHO. More specifically the WHO has reported that the mosquitoes have been “flourishing in impoverished crowded areas with no piped water and poorly collected garbage and trash.” This is especially problematic since the majority of the countries with the largest outbreaks are lower or middle income nations and have large underdeveloped urban populations.
The best way to prevent the spread of the virus has been to protect against mosquitoes. Health organizations and affected governments are looking into new methods to prevent the spread of the Zika virus. Use of genetically-modified mosquitoes in breeding has been throughout the news recently.
Researches believe that by exposing male mosquitoes to small levels of radiation they will become infertile and will eventually result in the extinction of the species that is carrying the virus.