As one of the most-talked about health topics this year, Zika continues to be a global health concern. Following initial discussions and updates on research around finding a vaccine, there was also plenty of controversy around the Rio Summer Olympics and Paralympic Games, with many athletes dropping out due to concerns over high-risk areas in South America. Now, over two billion people in Africa and Asia are thought to be at risk of developing Zika, where the virus is more likely to be spread, following some initial outbreaks in parts of these continents.
Current state of the Zika Virus
Whilst the virus was largely located in South America, an increasing number of cases of babies born with mircrocephaly (a condition which means that they are born with abnormally small heads) were reported in Brazil in 2015, and the virus has now spread to over 65 countries – arriving in Africa recently.
The virus is transmitted by mosquitos, but at the moment it is unknown which species is responsible and how the virus is spread, whilst work is continuing on developing a vaccine against Zika. The warmer summer temperatures make it easier for the virus to spread, especially as people travel to and from the Americas.
Risk of transmission in Africa and Asia
A study published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases claims that more than two billion people in Africa and Asia could be at risk of Zika outbreaks. Data was gathered on air traveller numbers and in other areas to formulate their predictions, with Indonesia, Nigeria and India considered to be amongst the most vulnerable countries. Factors such as poor health resources, prevalence of mosquitoes and the climates of these areas could contribute to the spread of the virus.
Whilst the study has made estimations around who and where could be affected, it is difficult to make firm predictions. It is thought that many people in these at risk areas could have built up some immunity to the virus already. The report stressed that more ‘on the ground’ research needs to be done in order to gain more information about potential risks.
The research also highlighted the fact that viruses like Zika highlight the inequalities which exist in global healthcare, stressing that being able to tackle these is the best way to protect against large-scale viruses.
If you are travelling to areas considered to be high-risk Zika areas, or you are concerned about travel in general, there are a number of useful resources to provide you with advice. For pregnant women, non-essential travel to areas where Zika is present should be avoided. Those that are travelling to these areas should take the same precautions that they would against mosquito bites – wearing loose clothing which covers areas such as arms and legs and using insect repellent. The NHS website has some useful advice about the virus, risks and so on, whilst FitForTravel is an excellent resource for finding out which areas are at risk and which precautions you should take. You can always talk to your GP about the risks whilst getting vaccinations for travel.