The world has barely broken into the New Year, and it appears that we have been greeted with a new Infectious Disease. We’ve barely gotten over Ebola, and now, we have to address the emergence of the Zika virus that is rapidly spreading through the Americas. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) has confirmed that virus is spreading rapidly through the Americas and could potentially reach all countries except Canada and Chile.
Getting to the basics: Zika 101
If you have been tuning in to world events, you probably know that Zika is not the name of a new music group. Zika is a virus that is carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is also known to spread Dengue fever and Chikunguya. The first detection of the virus reported outside Africa and Asia was the 2007 outbreak in the Federated States of Micronesia where nearly 75% of the population was infected. The first confirmed case in the wave of the latest epidemic was in Brazil in May 2015; to date, twenty-two countries and territories in the Americas have reported to PAHO/WHO local transmission of Zika virus infections.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in five individuals infected with the Zika virus actually become ill. However, those who become ill and show symptoms experience fever, rash, joint pain, or conjunctivitis (red eyes), as well as muscle pain and headache. The virus has also been linked to a potential birth defect called Microcephaly, a rare neurological condition in which an infant’s head is significantly smaller than the heads of other children of the same age and sex. In addition, the spread of the virus through blood transfusion and sexual contact have also been reported. While cases of severe illness and deaths from infection are uncommon, there is currently no vaccine or specific treatment for the infection.
Who should be concerned and why?
As global citizens we should all be concerned about this public health crisis. In the coming days, the World Health Organization will convene to determine whether Zika constitutes a “public health emergency of international concern. The lessons learned from the Ebola pandemic show that a large part of controlling the spread of disease is to act quickly, and each of us is responsible for doing so in one way or the other.
Evidence to date shows that women who contract Zika in their first or second trimester can transmit the virus to their infants. In fact, in response to this, El Salvador just asked women to avoid getting pregnant until 2018, which of course opens up a whole can of worms. According to experts, this public health request at a national level might indeed be a cry for help. “I mean, the futility of saying something like this…are you going to stop having sex?” said Dr. Ernesto Selva Sutter, a leading public health expert in El Salvador.
Prevention is better than cure
All day, every day. While there is currently no cure for Zika, the CDC recommends that all pregnant women consider postponing travel to areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing. If a pregnant woman decides to travel to an area with Zika virus transmission, she should avoid mosquito bites as much as possible. Risk communication and community engagement will be an ongoing part of preventing the spread of the virus. This means providing opportunities for an enhanced exchange of information between couples, and among community members, patients, health providers and key stakeholders on the risks associated with the virus and the impact a potential infection could have on an individual member or multiple members of a particular community.
In areas where mosquitoes are prevalent, prevention means managing yourself, and your environment. Steps include wearing mosquito repellent, using screens to keep mosquitoes outside, wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts when possible, and emptying standing water inside and outside the home.
UPDATE: On February 1, 2016 a committee of the World Health Organization concluded that the rapid spread of the Zika virus constitutes an international public health emergency.
Feature image: An exterminator fumigating a local area against mosquitoes.
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