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The Zika Virus: WHO declares global health emergency

By Isadora Linheira

The World Health Organization (WHO), declared a global health emergency this morning due to the rapid spread of the Zika Virus, which has been linked to birth defects in the Americas, saying that the virus poses a public health threat to many other countries around the world.

The mosquito-borne virus is believed to be the cause of a surge in babies born with brain defects and abnormally small heads in Brazil. Last month the U.S Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued an updated travel alert warning pregnant women to either cancel or delay travel to 22 different destinations, mostly in the Caribbean and Latin America, where outbreaks of the virus have been confirmed.

The Zika virus was first found in 1947 in Uganda but until it showed up in Brazil last year, wasn’t believed to cause any serious illness. Brazilian authorities have asked WHO to investigate the connection between the virus and a huge number of babies born with microcephaly, a condition in which the child is born with an abnormally small head and missing or underdeveloped parts of the brain. Though, microcephaly tends to occur more sporadically, only in Pernambuco – northeast Brazil, 300 microcephaly cases occurred per 10,000 births, an alarming amount. Brazil authorities announced that since October of last year around 4,000 babies have been born with microcephaly.

Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota, told the Associated Press, that it was still unclear how the virus had evolved since it first emerged in Uganda but that even minor mutations could have serious consequences. Osterholm and other experts believe the Zika virus has found the perfect breeding ground in Brazil due to the tropical regions large population of mosquitoes, who transmit the virus, and many Brazilians with no immunity to the new mutated Zika strand.

The CDC recently found the fingerprint of the Zika virus on the placentas of women who gave birth to affected babies.  At least nineteen of the babies born with microcephaly have died.

One of the first symptoms of the Zika virus is severe muscle weakness and tingling, usually starting in the legs and then spreading upward till it paralyzes most of the body. Because of the similarities to the Guillain-Barre syndrome in El Salvador, WHO is investigating a possible link between the two diseases. Guillain-Barre has also been reported in patients with likely Zika infection in French Polynesia and Brazil.

The incubation period for the Zika virus is anywhere from three to 12 days. For every 10 people infected, 8 show no symptoms, the other 2 will get fever, muscular and joint aches and pain, rashes, red eyes, lack of energy, constant weakness, malaise and headaches. Patients who exhibit these symptoms and are admitted to a hospital usually feel better within two to seven days.

There is no medication to kill the virus as of yet, the only treatment’s available are the “supportive” methods, meaning ibuprofen or acetaminophen to ease the fever. Medical authorities in Brazil are currently working to develop a vaccine.

WHO has announced that protection against the mosquitos that spread the virus is fundamental, including insect repellents, protective clothing and nets. WHO has also recommended that any spot with standing water, where the mosquitos breed and develop, should be eliminated.

Some parts of the United States could see homegrown outbreaks later this year, however Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are at the most immediate risk.  The U.S. Gulf Coast has mosquitos that can carry the Zika virus, and several U.S. states including Illinois, Florida, Hawaii and New York State have had imported cases. Recently, Hawaiian authorities reported the first child born in the U.S. with microcephaly. According to the report, the baby’s mother was pregnant while living in Brazil, where it is believed she contracted the virus.

The mosquito Aedes Aegypti, trasmitter of the Zika virus, Dengue fever and Chikungunya.

The mosquito Aedes Aegypti, trasmitter of the Zika virus, Dengue fever and Chikungunya. Photo courtesy of the Centers for disease control.

 

 

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