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Zika Virus: What you need to know about the global outbreak

As the 2016 Olympic Games approach (August 5 – 21) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the World Health Organization (WHO) has downplayed public safety concerns regarding the spread of the Zika virus. Many have called for the Olympics to be postponed, with one group of scientists going so far as to issue an open letter calling it “unethical” for the Games to go ahead. Of course, the significance of Zika extends far beyond the Olympics, so below WebMD provides a brief summary of what we know so far about this global “pandemic in progress.”

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What we know about Zika

Doctors have described Zika as “a pandemic in progress,” and some are even advising women in affected countries to delay getting pregnant.

What are the symptoms?

The direct impacts of the Zika virus on infected individuals are relatively mild. The virus rarely causes adult deaths, and only around 20% of infected individuals appear to develop any symptoms. Moreover, the symptoms themselves appear limited to mild fever, conjunctivitis (pink eye), headache, joint pain, and rashes.

The biggest health concern related to Zika infections is the impact the virus can have on babies developing in the wombs of infected women. Specifically, Zika infections are thought to cause a surge in microcephaly, a disorder in which a baby’s head is small due to a defect in brain development. In fact, a group of scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Academy of Military Medical Sciences earlier this month became the first in the world to identify a direct link between the Zika virus and microcephaly. Microcephaly severity can vary, but the disorder is often deadly (e.g., where the brain is so underdeveloped that it cannot regulate the functions vital to life), and children that do survive generally suffer from intellectual disability and developmental delays.

How is Zika transmitted?

So far Zika appears to primarily have been spread by mosquitoes, which drink the blood of an infected person and can then infect subsequent people through biting. Zika can also be spread through sexual intercourse.

According to the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Zika can linger in the blood for about a week, and in semen for about two weeks.

The CDC believes the Zika virus does not cause infections in a baby that is conceived after the virus is cleared from the mother’s blood.

What are the treatments?

There is no known vaccine or drug treatment for Zika infection, so individuals thought to be infected are advised to rest and drink an abundance of fluids.

Some countries have advised safe sex and controls on blood donations in order to reduce the risk of Zika infection.

Individuals can also protect themselves by reducing their risk of being bitten by mosquitoes, for example by using insect repellents, wearing long-sleeved clothes, and keeping windows and doors closed. Avoiding pools of standing water, where mosquitoes lay their eggs, can also help reduce the risk of infection.

Where is the Zika outbreak?

Zika outbreaks are usually identified by outbreaks of microcephaly. Although direct links between microcephaly and Zika have now been established, Zika may not be the only cause of microcephaly and outbreaks thereof.

Zika was first found in Africa and spread to Asia and Latin America. The Zika virus is spreading rapidly in Latin America, including 2016 Olympics host Brazil. Thailand and the Philippines are the most Zika-infected countries in Asia. China reported its first case of Zika in February 2016. Hainan and Taiwan are reported to be the most at-risk areas in Greater China for Zika infection.

What is being done?

A Zika vaccine is under development, with initial trials in the United States scheduled to start in September 2016.

In the meantime, new testing kits are being developed to better identify Zika infections, and new efforts are being made to reduce mosquito populations (e.g., using insecticides and even genetically modified sterile mosquitoes).

What we do NOT know about Zika

The biggest unanswered question we have about Zika is why it is suddenly causing an outbreak. The Zika virus has been identified as early as the 1940s in Africa. Unfortunately, the available data has proven questionable, as figures from before the outbreak may be underestimates, while the number of suspected cases post-outbreak is likely an overestimate (of the 4,783 reported cases of microcephaly, 404 have been confirmed, 709 have been disproved and 3,670 are still under investigation).

7 Responses to “Zika Virus: What you need to know about the global outbreak”

  1. Xinhua News Agency
    December 2, 2016 at 10:27 am #

    Antibiotic may help stop Zika from damaging fetal brains: study

    U.S. researchers said Tuesday they have identified fetal brain tissue cells that are targeted by the Zika virus and determined that azithromycin, a common antibiotic regarded as safe for use during pregnancy, can block this infection, at least in brain cells grown in lab dishes.

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