Zika Virus: The Deadliest Animals on Earth Strike Again

Zika virus could be bigger global health threat than Ebola, say health experts” – The Guardian
Zika Virus a Global Health Emergency, W.H.O. Says” – The New York Times
Zika virus raises more questions than answers for pregnant women” – Los Angeles Times

Mosquito season is about to swing into full force here in the U.S., and the deadliest animals in the world are back with a new weapon: the Zika virus.

While the  Zika virus has been of great interest in recent months, this virus is far from new. The Zika virus was identified nearly 70 years ago. It was first recognized in Uganda in 1947 in Rhesus monkeys during Yellow Fever monitoring, then identified in humans for the first time 1952 in Uganda and Tanzania.

So, why are we just hearing about this virus now?

Honestly, it just hasn’t been alarming until now. Here in the U.S., Zika hasn’t been something we worry about day to day. This is because Zika has been prominent in other regions, and the U.S. isn’t a friendly environment for mosquitoes in the winter.

Due to travel, there have been a reported 346 cases of Zika in the continental U.S. Plus, now that it’s spring again and cold days are behind us, mosquitoes are back. Therefore, Zika sneaking through the U.S. is now a real concern.

Currently, the Zika virus is a prominent concern in 26 countries and territories in Latin America and the Caribbean.

One of the reasons Zika can be so devastating is because people often don’t realize they are infected. The virus can infect people of  all ages, and can manifest in many different forms; such as, fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (pink eye). In healthy adults, Zika symptoms are quite mild. These symptoms also overlap with many other diseases and people rarely get sick enough to go to the hospital; plus it’s even more rare to die from Zika. Therefore, most people won’t ever realize that they are infected.

Not knowing that you’re infected with Zika can be quite dangerous, especially for new or expecting mothers. Zika has recently been linked to birth defects and potentially paralysis, such as  microcephaly and the Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS) respectively. In Brazil, there have been a large amount of babies affected with these diseases, but the the association between these diseases and Zika were not linked for many years.

The association between microcephaly and Zika arose in light of a 2012 study, where data was collected on 100,000 babies born in Brazil. It wasn’t until February 2016, that the World Health Organization (WHO) announced a clear link between the two. It became apparent these two were connected when Zika was detected in the amniotic fluid of pregnant women whose fetuses had been diagnosed with microcephaly. Until this connection was made in February, not much was done about Zika.

As if one major illness wasn’t enough, Zika could be a major factor in causing Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS), though this association is still being debated. In January 2016, two people were admitted to a hospital in Martinique, a French West Indies Island, with GBS-like symptoms.

GBS allows your immune system to attack your peripheral nervous system, causing pin and needle tingling in your extremities. While this is a rare disease (affecting ~ 1 in 100,000 people), if Zika is found to be linked, GBS becomes of serious concern in areas where this virus is found.

So, what does this all mean?

While Zika has not been affecting us in the U.S., Zika is something we should be concerned about and take action on. In February, the WHO declared Zika as a ‘public health emergency of international concern.’ Aiming to prevent the spread of Zika, President Obama has asked for $1.9 billion from Congress in February 2016. These funds would help agencies like the Center for Disease Control, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture address prevention and control of Zika.

airport_woman

Image Credit: Hernan Pinera via Flikr

While Zika isn’t the first mosquito virus to threaten humans (see previous blog post for more details here), we shouldn’t take the spread of Zika lightly. In an attempt to control Zika, the WHO has recommended that pregnant women suspend travel to countries that are infected with Zika until more is known. Also, people in Zika-affected areas should use condoms to avoid infecting sexual partners, since the virus can be transmitted via sexual contact.

To stay up to date with current Zika news, follow CDC updates here.

About the Author

Amanda Shaver is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Genetics at the University of Georgia. She enjoys dancing, crafting, and playing with her dog Mr. Peabody. High on her list of accomplishments is eating a whole block of cheddar cheese in one sitting without negative consequences. You can email her at Amanda.shaver@uga.edu or follow her on Twitter @AOShaver.