On February 1, the World Health Organization declared a state of emergency due to new evidence that linked Zika Virus to microcephaly in newborn babies in Brazil. Microcephaly leads children to be born with unnaturally small heads and underdeveloped brains, and plays a significant role in the emergence of neurological disorders including seizures, hearing and vision loss, and poor motor control skills. Naturally, many expectant parents watched with concern as doctors and doomsayers began to speak out about this mysterious virus.
The Zika virus was first identified as a transmittable agent in 1947 by researchers working in the Zika Forest. However it took five years for researchers experimenting on Rhesus monkeys and mice at the East African Virus Research Institute in Entebbe, Uganda to isolate the Zika pathogen. These researchers discovered that much like Dengue and Yellow Fever, Zika is transmitted through the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, which commonly inhabits Africa, Southeast Asia, the Americas, and the Pacific Islands. Although neurons of infected mice showed damage, it was uncertain that Zika could induce any symptoms in humans until renegade researcher William Bearcroft injected himself with the virus strain in 1956 and experienced a mild fever.
Despite its relatively long history, the medical community previously showed little concern over Zika because cases were isolated and symptoms mild. Although common symptoms include chills, skin rash, and conjunctivitis—reddening of the eyes—many people may be exposed to Zika without experiencing any symptoms at all. There are no known treatments or vaccines. Until recently, there was no demand for one.
The Tide Changes
In 2007 opinions towards Zika began to change. That was the year doctors treated the first major outbreak on Yap Island in Micronesia. Forty-nine current cases were diagnosed and 73 percent of residents older than three years old showed evidence of previous infection. Next, French Polynesia experienced a serious outbreak. As of today, 52 countries have reported cases of Zika, most recently Brazil. All of this would be typically viewed without much concern, were it not for the increased incidents of occurrence in tourists combined with potential links discovered between Zika and congenital disorders in unborn infants in Brazil.
Despite the panic, there’s still not a lot of consensus among the medical community about potential risks of Zika, means of transmission, and the scope of the risk. Dr. Peter Hotez of the Sabin Vaccine Institute warns of impending disaster. However, according to doctors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no cause for fear in the United States. Basic precautions like bug spray, protective clothing, and mosquito nets are the most effective way to avoid infection in high-risks areas. For expectant mothers, the CDC and WHO recommends avoiding travel to countries like Brazil where Zika is active.
Due to the amount of time and work that goes into making credible scientific discoveries, it is likely that the history of Zika will continue to unfold for years to come. As medical research continues, by staying aware of new findings, it is possible to weigh the risks and make informed decisions.