In a relatively short amount of time, the Zika Virus has become a household name, prompting worldwide concern and big ramifications.
Images of infants born with a rare brain disease that causes a shrunken skull are going viral, while health authorities in several South American countries are warning women to postpone pregnancies two years. High-profile athletes, including soccer star Hope Solo, are expressing concern about participating in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The World Health Organization has deemed Zika a “public health emergency of international concern,” and some reports suggest the U.S. will see active transmission of the virus by summer.
So what is it about the vector-borne virus that makes it so elusive? Zika itself is mild, causing cold- or flu-like symptoms that are only reported by 1 in 5 of the people who develop it. And it’s not new: Zika was first identified in 1947 in Uganda and has spread through the Western hemisphere via mosquito bite. Until last year, outbreaks were confined to areas of Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands. In May 2015, the Pan American Health Organization issued an alert about the first infection in Brazil. Since then, outbreaks have occurred in Cape Verde, Africa, and several countries and territories within the Americas and Pacific islands. As of Feb. 17, 82 travel-associated Zika virus cases had been reported in the U.S., affecting people in California, Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania, among other states. The WHO estimates 3 to 4 million people will be infected with Zika within the next year.
Where is the Virus Now?
The Zika virus is now being locally transmitted in Aruba, Barbados, Bolivia, Bonaire, Brazil, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Curacao, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Marshall Islands, Martinique, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Saint Martin, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, U.S. Virgin Islands, Venezuela, American Samoa, Samoa, Tonga and Cape Verde, according to the CDC and WHO.
Zika has arrived in the United States from travelers returning from these infected areas and, in one confirmed case and 14 suspected cases, through sexual transmission. The concern, of course, is whether imported cases could result in more locally transmitted cases within the United States.
The Aedes albopictus, or Asian tiger mosquito, which along with Aedes aegypti transmits Zika virus, is present in many parts of the United States.
What’s being done to Stop the virus?
Researchers are hard at work in laboratories around the world trying to create a vaccine. A clinical trial for a Zika virus vaccine could begin this year, according to Fauci. The WHO says it will be at least 18 months until large-scale clinical trials get underway.
“While in development, it’s important to understand we won’t have a vaccine this year or even in the next few years, although we may be able to have a clinical trial start this calendar year,” he said.
Health officials are implementing traditional mosquito control techniques such as spraying pesticides and emptying standing water receptacles where mosquitoes breed. The CDC encourages homeowners, hotel owners and visitors to countries with Zika outbreaks also to eliminate any standing water they see, such as in outdoor buckets and flowerpots.
What Can I do to Avoid the Virus?
With no treatment or vaccine available, the only protection against Zika is to avoid travel to areas with an active infestation. If you do travel to a country where Zika is present, the CDC advises strict adherence to mosquito protection measures: Use an EPA-approved repellent over sunscreen, wear long pants and long-sleeve shirts thick enough to block a mosquito bite, and sleep in air-conditioned, screened rooms, among others.
Also in final note for tourist attending the summer Olympic games in Brazil this year, a group of more than 200 doctors, bioethicists, and public health specialists, who think that no one should be going. They posted an open letter online calling for the Rio Olympics to be postponed or moved “in the name of public health.” They invoke the CDC’s recommendation that people “consider delaying travel to areas with active Zika virus transmission.”
But the World Health Organization refuted claims that the Olympics were a particular danger for Zika. Over all be knowledgeable and make the proper choices for your own health and safety.