Zika virus

What Do We Know About The Zika Virus?

Earlier this week, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a disease linked to the Zika virus, a global public health emergency, which requires an immediate and ‘united response’. The disease, which has been spreading across Latin America has been found to cause birth defects in children, with no vaccine available as yet to prevent it. Until now, little has been known about the virus but as the situation develops across the region, it is an issue which is sure to garner a lot of attention over the coming weeks.


What is the Zika Virus?

Zika is a mosquito-borne virus which has been linked to birth defects. The sudden increased interest in the virus is because of the high incidence of infants who have been born with birth defects in Latin America, suggesting a link. The virus causes babies’ brains to under develop, known as microephaly. Microephaly can cause death in some cases, and serious learning difficulties and delays in development in others. The consequences therefore for families facing this condition can be severe.


Where does Zika originate from?

The first known case of Zika can be traced to Uganda in 1947, where the disease was discovered in monkeys. The first human case discovered was in 1954 in Nigeria, and cases soon began appearing in other parts of Africa, South East Asia and the Pacific Islands, although in small numbers. Last year, cases were reported in Brazil and soon spread to other countries across Latin America.


What causes Zika?

Zika is caused by a certain type of mosquito breed, Aedes, which are found throughout hotter parts of the Americas. The breed is not found in colder climates, such as Chile and Canada. Aedes mosquitos are active during the day and can spread diseases such as Zika if they bite an infected person and then move onto another person.


Why has Zika been declared as a ‘global health emergency’?

Zika poses a potential global threat, in the same way as the recent Ebola outbreak. Declaring something as a global health emergency requires countries across the world to invest money and resources into tackling the disease through researching and producing vaccines, as well as providing aid to those who have been affected.


What are the symptoms of Zika?

For infected individuals, the symptoms of Zika are relatively mild, causing fever, headache, conjunctivitis and in some case a rash or joint pain. At the moment, no vaccine or treatment exists, therefore sufferers are advised to drink fluids and rest in the same way you would if you had a common cold. However, it’s the effects on unborn babies that are causing concern.


How can it be prevented?

Whilst no vaccine currently exists, people in at-risk areas are being advised to reduce their chances of being bitten by mosquitos. This involves staying indoors, using insect repellents, keeping windows and doors closed and wearing long sleeved clothing and trousers. Women in countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Jamaica and Puerto Rico have been advised to delay conceiving until the outbreak is under control, and others have been advised not to travel to areas affected.


What are the current measures?

Currently, work is being done to develop a testing kit to ensure quicker diagnosis, investment is being channelled into developing a vaccine, and pesticides are being used to control the mosquitos.


Where can I find out more information?

Whilst there are no Aedes mosquitos in the UK, expectant mothers are advised to seek advice before travelling to affected countries. A number of travel agencies are allowing mothers to rebook their trips if they are concerned.

There are a number of useful websites featuring further information about Zika, including advice on travelling and what to do if you’ve been to an affected country: