Zika virus: An emerging threat

by Abbhirami Rajagopal

Zika virus was originally reported in 1952 in the Transactions of Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. The original study involved placing a Rhesus monkey in a cage in the ZIka forest in Uganda. The monkey subsequently developed a fever and the researchers were identified a transmissible agent from its serum, and called it the ZIka virus. The virus belongs to the Flaviviridae virus family, related to dengue, yellow fever and West Nile virus, and it is transmitted by the day-time active mosquitoes, such as those of the genus Aedes.

CDC estimates that “about 1 in 5 people infected with Zika will get sick and for those who get sick, the illness is usually mild. The most common symptoms of Zika virus disease are fever, rash, joint pain, or conjunctivitis (red eyes). Symptoms typically begin 2 to 7 days after being bitten by an infected mosquito.”

Currently, the virus has spread to nearly 23 countries, with countries like Colombia reporting that they have about 20,000 confirmed cases that include ~2000 pregnant women. Pregnant women are the focus of this epidemic, as recent studies showed a link between Zika virus infection and microcephaly, a devastating birth defect that results in smaller brain size. CDC has issued travel warnings for nearly 25 countries, and several South American countries are strongly urging women to not get pregnant.

WHO recently declared Zika virus a global health emergency with the potential for infecting nearly 4 million people. In the US there have been 36 cases including 4 pregnant women and in Houston, where I live and work, thus far seven cases have been reported. All cases in the US are travel-related and not due to local transmission.

There is real concern at the alarming rise in the number of infected individuals. The other potential cause for worry might be the summer Olympics in Rio De Janeiro in a few months. Brazil has stepped up its surveillance program and the hope is that the cooler, drier climate will control the mosquito population.

President Obama has called on U.S. health officials and scientists to examine the link with microcephaly and rapid development and testing of vaccines for Zika virus.

While we wait, protect yourself from mosquito bites and if you are traveling make sure to check the CDC ZIka Virus page.

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