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Friday, 12 February 2016 06:00

The Zika Virus

Written by  Vicki Thomas

zika-virusA few weeks ago, the Zika virus made the news, but it was largely overshadowed with other issues. But now, the Zika virus is front and center. Initially thought to be isolated to a small geographic area, we’re now learning that the Zika virus is a pressing and growing concern.

In this column, we take a look at some of the recent news coverage and provide you with details and facts that you need to be aware of.

What is the Zika Virus?

The Zika virus was first identified in 1947 in Uganda and has over the years has spread to the Americas and was in 2014 reported in Easter Island and Chile. In 2015 the virus was reported in Brazil and now the virus is spreading rapidly.

The best way to stay up-to-date on where the Zika virus has been reported, is to refer to this Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) map.

Zika disease is caused by the Zika virus and is primarily spread by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. Recently there have been reports of Zika being spread through sexual contact, and this is leading to many unknowns about the transmission of the disease:

“The first known case of Zika virus transmission in the continental United States was reported in Dallas on Tuesday by local health officials, who said it likely was contracted through sex and not a mosquito bite.

"We certainly understand the concern. This needs to be further investigated to understand the conditions and how often or likely sexual transmission is, and whether or not other body fluids are implicated," WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl told Reuters on Wednesday.” (Zika virus sexual transmission case in U.S. raises concern of World Health Organization)

This virus is believed to be linked to babies who are born with microcephaly. Babies born with microcephaly have very small heads and other birth defects. The numbers of babies with this condition are on the rise in Brazil and more babies are being born with this disease throughout the Americas.

Even though we know a lot about the Zika virus, there are still so many unknowns including determining how the virus and disease can and are being transmitted. At this time, there is no vaccine or cure for Zika disease.

“The concern is in the context of pregnancy, said Dr. Mark Loeb, a physician and professor in the department of pathology and molecular medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., who does research on dengue, a viral cousin of Zika.

"Eighty per cent of people who are infected aren't aware so the question is might men have this in their semen and not even be aware they're transmitting it," Loeb said in an interview.” (Zika virus sexual transmission case in U.S. raises concern of World Health Organization)

International Public Health Emergency

The World Health Organization has declared the Zika virus to be an international public health emergency. This measure was taken even though the link to birth defects cannot yet be proved.

This declaration as a public health emergency has added to the urgency and concern over Zika.

And this is a good thing:

“The emergency designation will galvanize coordinated international monitoring and action of the sort that was tragically missing in the first months of the Ebola pandemic. The W.H.O.’s decision, however, could reduce travel to affected countries, which would be an economic burden. Brazil, where Zika made its first major appearance in the Western Hemisphere last May, is especially fearful that visitors will stay away from the Olympic Games in August. It cannot let that prevent it from being completely transparent about this serious threat and the steps it is taking to protect people.

In Latin America, where many nations outlaw abortion, some governments have advised that pregnancies be delayed, which can create only greater anxiety for women who have sadly limited control over such decisions.

All of this adds urgency to the work of medical researchers investigating any possible link between microcephaly and Zika infection, for which there is no cure. And it puts a heavy responsibility on the W.H.O. and institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Pan American Health Organization to give clear and realistic guidance on how to avoid infection. The C.D.C. has issued a list of countries pregnant women should try to avoid visiting and has advised travelers on how to protect against mosquito bites.” (Fighting the Zika Virus)

To learn more about the Zika virus (this is a breaking news story and undoubtedly, we’ll know more in the weeks to come)