According to the WHO, Zika has now become a public health emergency. 1 in 10 pregnant women with a confirmed Zika infection will have a baby with birth defects. However, based on the latest data, its threat goes beyond pregnancy complications and its reach is further than Latin America.
1. The Zika virus can be transmitted sexually.
Contrary to the earliest reports that the virus is transmitted through mosquito bites alone, we now know that at least 3% of infected women contracted the illness from their male partner. So, if you’re a woman who is pregnant or is planning to get pregnant, and your partner has been to a region with active Zika transmission, you are advised to tell him that for the next 6 months he needs to wrap it or put it away!
2. Active Zika transmission areas are expanding.
In 2015 the first alarm was sounded by Brazilian doctors who noticed a surge in microcephaly (small and underdeveloped brain), vision problems and hearing loss among newborns and traced it to the Zika virus infection in their mothers. Since then, the virus has made its way into all of the South American countries, except Uruguay and Chile. It is also in all of the Caribbean, Central American countries, Mexico, and southern US, including Hawaii. Across the ocean, most of Sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian sub-continent, all of South-East Asia, and all of the Pacific Island nations are also active Zika areas.
3. Zika can be dangerous not only to pregnant women.
The virus belongs to the same family as the viruses that cause serious illnesses like Dengue Fever and Yellow Fever. However, the course of a Zika infection is usually mild and it resolves in a couple of weeks. It causes a rash, conjunctivitis (red eye) and flu-like symptoms. Until recently we thought that unborn babies were the only ones truly in danger due to the observed birth defects. Alarmingly, data show that Zika puts otherwise healthy adults at a higher risk for a rare autoimmune condition called Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS). It is characterized by nerve degradation which leads to paralysis; in most cases, it requires hospitalization as breathing muscles can also be affected.
4. The virus has been around for a long time.
It was first identified in Rhesus monkeys who live in the Zika forest of Uganda, Africa in 1947. For decades it remained in obscurity with only 14 documented cases. Then, in 2007 an epidemic broke out on the tiny Pacific island of Yap. From there Zika traveled to French Polynesia, the rest of the Pacific islands and to the Americas. Scientists still don’t know how the virus evolved to inhabit the human body.
5. There are still many questions about the Zika virus.
For instance, scientists are still working out how exactly the virus crosses the placenta to infect the brain of the developing baby. There are 2 lineages of the virus: African and Asian. Each acts in a particular way and infects its host using different strategies. There is no vaccine and no cure for Zika at the moment, so the best way for you to be safe is to prevent the infection. If you must travel to an active Zika area, use mosquito repellent that contains DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, para-menthane-diol, or 2-undecanone. Wear long sleeves and long pants, sleep in a room with window screens and do not let standing water accumulate near your dwelling.
References (links to scientific articles)