Posted: Wednesday, March 9, 2016 7:19 pm | Updated: 7:20 pm, Wed Mar 9, 2016.
If you have been paying attention to your social media feeds or picking up the paper lately, you may be familiar with Zika virus It’s this year’s Ebola, and the paranoia is spreading quicker than the disease.
Last May, the virus broke out for the first time in the Western Hemisphere and has been causing panic among expecting mothers in the affected regions and those wishing to travel. The first confirmed case was in Brazil, and since then the virus has traveled to 20 different countries across three continents.
But what most people don’t know is that the Zika virus has been recorded almost every year since 1949, when the first case was discovered in the Zika Forest in Uganda.
The infection is transmitted through the bite of the Aedes (or yellow fever) mosquito. It is closely related to Yellow and Dengue Fever and is relatively harmless to healthy adults.
The majority of patients affected with the disease don’t show any symptoms, and thus have nothing to worry about. The virus passes through the bloodstream within two weeks, most of the time without the patient’s knowledge. The only side effects seem to be mild fatigue, joint pain, and slight fever, if any at all.
This outbreak has caused major concern, however, because of what the virus can do to a fetus. Researchers at the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have linked it to microcephaly in newborns. The disease is characterized by the abnormally small heads of affected infants, the result of retardation in neural development during pregnancy.
Children born with this condition often have intellectual deficiencies, hearing loss, and developmental delays. Microcephaly can also be caused by Yellow or Dengue Fever, the German measles (Rubella), or consumption of alcohol during gestation.
Normally, Brazil deals with 150 cases of microcephaly a year. This year alone over 4,000 newborns have been diagnosed with this condition. Last November, the WHO declared this an international public health emergency.
In recent months, other health conditions have been connected to the rise of the Zika virus, including Guillain-Barre Syndrome in Latin and South America, which might also be linked to contracting Zika. The syndrome causes an infected individual’s immune system to attack the myelin sheath, a protective coating around the nerves. In healthy people, this coating allows nerves to fire rapidly. Without it, the electrical signals being fired between your nerves never reach their proper destination. The result is temporary numbness or paralysis in the outer extremities, which can move up the limbs if not treated in time.
Researchers at the UW and elsewhere are looking to develop drugs to stave off disease, but at this time, there is no cure. The CDC has put out a traveler’s warning for expectant mothers who plan on going somewhere tropical for the holidays.
With spring break fast approaching, and most tropical locations an airplane ride away, health officials are concerned about an outbreak. People who are pregnant or may become pregnant are advised to take protective measures, including the use of birth control or avoiding areas of outbreak.
As our world gets more interconnected, diseases like Zika, Ebola, and Swine Flu can easily jump from continent to continent and create a global pandemic. The only way to slow that process down is to understand the preventative measures and take them seriously.
Reach contributing writer Lauren Hanna at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @Lauren_A_Hanna