The rapid spread of the Zika virus has given cause for global health warnings and has become a major topic in worldwide media. We lay out the facts so you can stay healthy and informed.
Over the past year, the mosquito-borne Zika virus has caused growing concern among international health agencies, causing the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” on February 1st.
Central concerns stem from the virus’ potential connection to the birth disorder microcephaly, which, according to Mayo Clinic, leaves babies with abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains. The virus can also possibly cause Guillain-Barré syndrome, which causes the immune system to attack nerve cells. Sometimes, this can lead to temporary paralysis, according to NINDS.
How Dangerous Is Zika Virus?
Despite these calls for alarm, people should take a measured response to the news. Zika virus itself causes relatively mild symptoms — flu-like aches, rashes, and fatigue — and about 80% of those infected will never even notice it, according to the New Yorker. That means, however, that the virus often goes undetected.
The main cause for the worldwide attention is that there are valid concerns that Zika infection may lead to birth defects and nervous disorders. That link remains to be conclusively proven, and remains tentative — but it hasn’t stopped the medical world from taking action.
As FiveThirtyEight’s Anna Maria Barry-Jester notes, the WHO declaration concerned the, “cluster of birth and neurological defects,” reported in Brazil, which have coincided with the rising prevalence of Zika. But out of 4,180 microcephaly cases reported, just six have been confirmed to be related to Zika.
According to Nature, it is yet unclear whether microcephaly cases have increased or if people have recently sought more aggressive diagnoses. Of reported microcephaly cases, 270 have been confirmed and 462 rejected as misdiagnoses. Even if Zika is causing microcephaly, researchers would expect lower, more consistent numbers — but they’re still taking these claims very seriously.
Barry-Jester observes that the WHO declaration makes funding available for international research into Zika and the mosquitos that transport it. While the disease poses a small threat in the short term, medical bodies want to see its growth prevented.
Individuals Should Still Take Precautions
At this point, pregnant mothers should take aggressive steps to avoid mosquito bites until more conclusive evidence comes forward. This advice is always relevant for any area in particular where the Aedes aegypti mosquito resides — warm and wet areas like the Caribbean, Central America, and parts of South America — because it also carries diseases like dengue and yellow fever.
Though, Zika is indeed spreading rapidly, and WHO estimates that 4 million people could become infected in the Americas. Unfortunately, it’s also likely that Zika can be transmitted sexually — which is thought to have caused one of the first U.S. cases, in Texas, according to Reuters. There is currently no Zika vaccine. But an Indian biotech company has been working on a vaccine for over a year now, according to QZ.
While the CDC recommends that pregnant women avoid traveling to countries where Zika is prevalent, the WHO has not seen it necessary to restrict travel or trade.
If you show signs or symptoms of Zika, SingleCare can help get you into the offices of the best doctors in your area for testing — no matter your level of insurance coverage. If you are diagnosed with Zika, the CDC recommends that you try to avoid mosquito bites for a week by covering up as much of your skin as possible. Mosquitos feed from more than one person at a time if they don’t get their fill from the first victim, so people around you can become contaminated. To recuperate, get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids.
(Main image credit: Wikipedia)