Over the years we’ve got used to hearing about more outbreaks and pandemics than we care to recall; SARS, swine flu, avian flu, ebola and now the Zika virus, which has gained worldwide attention through the distressing images of babies born with heads that are smaller than normal.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) the Zika virus could infect up to four million people this year.
The Zika virus is named after the Zika forest, Uganda where it was discovered. It is common in Africa and some parts of Asia, but since it was first identified in 1947, it never spread outside the areas to which it is endemic. That is until May 2015, when an outbreak was first recorded in northeast Brazil where the Dengue virus, to which it is related, was also circulating. Since then the numbers of people infected have been rising, leading to the WHO declaration that millions could get infected this year.
Like many other viruses such as Dengue, West-Nile and Japanese encephalitis, Zika is caused by a virus transmitted by the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito. The symptoms to the infected person are mild:
- Skin rashes
- Muscle and joint pain
- Red eyes
They usually last up to seven days and there is no treatment or vaccine. The advice of the WHO is that people sick with Zika should get plenty of rest, drink fluids and treat the pain and fever with common over-the-counter medication. If you suspect that you may have Zika, seek medical advice.
Affects unborn children
If Zika is not life threatening and its symptoms are so mild, why the fears of ‘millions’ of infections?
The problem with Zika is not so much how it affects us adults, but its effects on unborn children if their mother is infected.
Microcephaly is a condition whereby the head of a new-born baby is much smaller than that of other babies of the same age and sex. This happens when the brain does not develop properly in the womb or doesn’t grow as it should after birth. The child will grow up with disabilities.
According to the WHO, the link between Zika and Microcephaly has not been scientifically proven but a ‘causal relationship’ is ‘strongly suspected’.
If travel to endemic areas, is necessary, take the usual precautions against mosquito bites:
- Use an efficient insect repellent
- Wear light coloured clothing that cover you as much as possible, including your arms and legs
- Use screen sand nets to protect yourself
- Consult travel health specialists before travelling.
According to the US based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Zika is currently being transmitted in much of Central and Latin America and in the Caribbean. In the past, infections have occurred in parts of Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands; American Samoa, Samoa, Tonga.
Our risk in the UK
The Aedes mosquito can’t survive in the UK so there is no risk of us getting infected here. People who have visited endemic areas however, could be at risk. It may be possible that the virus is transmitted through sexual contact so if your partner has been to such an area, make sure you don’t get pregnant until you are certain that neither of you have been infected. If you are pregnant and want to be sure that you have not been infected, seek medical advice.