Contributed by Genevieve Comeau
It seems the world has barely stopped reeling from Ebola, and now there is talk of a new epidemic: Zika. Such is the price of our globalized society where a plane can take you across the world in a day, and Zika is becoming as worldly as any of us.
Discovered in 1947, it laid low in it’s native range of Africa and parts of Asia for decades. The virus, carried by mosquitoes in the Aedes genus (most notably Aedes aegyptii), is passed to humans through an infected mosquito’s bite. It can often be mistaken for dengue or West Nile, because of similarities between life cycle and clinical presentation.
As far as viruses go, who’s benchmark of success is to reproduce as much as possible without killing the host, Zika does pretty well. Only about 1 in 5 people infected with Zika become ill, the symptoms are relatively mild, and deaths are rare despite lack of existing treatment or vaccine.
Like many humans who find themselves successful, Zika decided to do some traveling. In 2007, residents of the Island of Yap in Micronesia started developing some symptoms that looked a lot like dengue. They had fever, a spotty red rash, aching joints, sore muscles, and red eyes, but they did not have any dengue antibodies in their blood. Samples were sent to the CDC for analysis and the culprit was, you guessed it, Zika. Several years passed with no further outbreaks. Then, last May, Zika showed up across the Pacific in Brazil.
But hold on. If the illness is mild, why is the World Health Organization losing its Swiss cheese over in Geneva and declaring a public health emergency? Well, at about the same time Zika cropped up in Brazil, there was a huge increase in babies born with microcephaly; a serious birth defect where the head and brain of a fetus do not develop properly. Since infection with certain viruses like measles and chicken pox have been known to cause microcephaly in the past, public health workers started to suspect that Zika had a nasty secret. Thus, the mobilization of the Brazilian military to get rid of mosquito breeding grounds and the CDC’s travel advisory against pregnant women traveling to any of the 24 affected countries.
So what do you need to know about Zika? Though there have been isolated cases of Zika in the US, widespread transmission in the States is unlikely. For now, the best thing to do is prevention. Get rid of any containers filled with standing water in your yard, wear long sleeves outside, and stay informed. For more on the virus, travel advisories, and prevention visit http://www.cdc.gov/zika/.