There has been a lot of news recently about the Zika virus. The virus is carried by mosquitos and has been popping up in record numbers in Brazil. Lately, it has also been spreading North throughout the Americas. There is a correlation between the virus and cases of microcephaly — a birth defect that results in a small head and underdeveloped brain.
There currently isn't a cure or vaccine for the virus.
Zika is known as a flavivirus, related to other mosquito-borne viruses that cause Yellow Fever, Dengue, and West Nile. It is transmitted by mosquitos from the Aedes genus, commonly known as tiger mosquitos. Pregnant mothers are also able to transmit the virus to their unborn babies via amniotic fluid, and there is currently investigation into whether it can be transmitted sexually.
The virus has been around since the 1940s, but cases began to surge in October 2015 at almost 30 times the normal rate.
Though millions are expected to become infected with Zika throughout this outbreak, only about 20 percent should become symptomatic. The symptoms are typically mild and include headaches, achiness, muscle weakness, and rashes. Very few people have historically experienced severe reactions, though some are currently claiming connections between Zika and Guillan-Barre Syndrome, a severe autoimmune disorder and babies born with microcephaly.
Microcephaly occurs when an infant has a smaller than normal head, which is associated with an underdeveloped brain. This can create a host of health problems for the child, including a lack of coordination, cognitive delays, vision and hearing problems, seizures, and more.
While there is a correlation between a dramatic uptick in babies born with microcephaly in Brazil and Zika cases, there has not been a definitive causal agent found between the two yet. Nevertheless, the CDC has recommended travel restrictions in Central and South America for pregnant women. Other countries closer to the outbreak, however, are going a step further.
The government of El Salvador has advised women to avoid getting pregnant until 2018. There has been backlash to this advice, calling attention to the fact that there aren't adequate contraceptive or abortion resources for women.
The virus has been slowly creeping up through the Americas, and experts believe that it will reach the United States, as there is already a population of mosquitos capable of carrying the virus.
Currently, all known cases of Zika in the U.S. have come from people who were traveling through South America. While it might be unavoidable to have cases originate in the U.S., there isn't any reason to currently worry about an outbreak at the level other countries have seen.
The biggest concern for spreading the disease will come this summer, as Brazil will be hosting the Olympics in Rio de Jenero. People will be traveling from all over the world to the epicenter of this outbreak. Should they get infected and return home, it's possible that they could be bitten by a mosquito and transmit the virus to their local mosquito population.
Until there is a treatment in place to protect against Zika, officials are recommending people take steps to suppress mosquito populations. This needs to be done with care, as widespread mosquito management can have harsh consequences for the environment. Some mosquitos have already developed a resistance to certain pesticides, which means that officials need to be judicious with how they're using resources to manage the problem.
Zika is a growing problem and research is needed to bring it under control. Anyone looking to help out can contact their government representatives and ask them to support the scientists and organizations who are taking on this important work.
Update (2/3/2016): The CDC has confirmed a case of Zika was sexually transmitted in Texas. While the individual did not travel, their sexual partner had recently been traveling through Venezuela. Health officials are urging people to take proper precautions.
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