At the beginning of the month, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that the disease linked to the Zika virus had reached the level of a global emergency. This infection has been linked to cases of microcephaly, a condition where babies are born with underdeveloped brains, causing the head to be smaller in size compared to that of a healthy infant. Since October last year there have been 4,000 reported cases of this condition in Brazil alone. Currently there is no vaccine or medication to treat Zika, but health professionals have advised against all travelling in this area to avoid getting bitten by the Aedes mosquitos that are transmitting the infection.
Aedes mosquitoes which are characteristically active during the daytime. The virus is related to other vector-borne diseases such as dengue fever, west Nile virus and Japanese encephalitis. The symptoms are similar to that of mild dengue fever, and as a result can only be treated by rest, as treatments are not yet available.
The virus was originally discovered in Uganda and its surrounding countries in 1947. Throughout the next decade, it was discovered to occur within an equatorial belt from Africa to Asia. In 2014, the virus spread towards the Pacific Ocean to French Polynesia, and subsequently Easter Island. From 2015 onwards, this virus was transported over to the Americas, causing the outbreak to be classified as a pandemic.
As was seen at the start of 2015 during the Ebola epidemic, the WHO has started to concentrate on this disease with utmost importance. Unlike Ebola, which included a ‘boots on the ground’ approach to combatting the disease, the focus for the Zika virus is to understand the link between the virus and microcephaly. By working with the countries affected, it is hoped that a more accurate determination of the risk that this virus is posing to the citizens will be uncovered. Efforts are also being focussed on removing the intermediate host of the virus, rather than solely focussing on curing the disease. It has been proven that removing the breeding habitats of the mosquitos can reduce the incidence rates of contraction. Methods include drying up stagnant water beds which are home to the mosquito larvae, as well as trying other ways to decrease the size of subpopulations.
It has been discovered in the US that the virus has been sexually transmitted to people who have not visited infected areas. Although it seems to be a rare occurrence, some countries are recommending men returning from affected areas to utilise condoms.
One of the big talking points in the media is how this outbreak may affect the Olympic Games, which are to be held in Rio later this year. Brazilian authorities are working in close contact with the International Olympic Committee and Rio organisers; venues will be checked daily to ensure that all risk is at a minimum. Combined with the fact that there will be fewer mosquitoes in August, this will hopefully allow for an incident-free Olympics