Late last year, Brazil has advised women to not get pregnant. The reason? Brazilian health officials are currently dealing with an outbreak of the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne disease which is believed to be the cause of the rise of babies born with microcephaly, a condition where a baby has an abnormally small head.
Just last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a travel warning to those going to countries in the Americas, including Mexcio and Brazil. Since then, incidents of the Zika virus have been reported in the U.S., U.K., and Taiwan. The CDC "watch list" also includes most South East Asian countries, including the Philippines.
Yes, you read that right. While Brazil is a long way from the Philippines, this kind of epidemic could travel fast and -- God forbid -- reach our shores. So in an effort to spread awareness of the threat of the virus, we gathered everything you need to know about the Zika virus.
According to the CDC, the first reported human infection of the Zika virus was in 1940s in Africa. The Philippines' first reported case of the Zika virus was in 2012, involving a 12-year-old boy from Cebu who was believed to have been infected by the virus even though he had no travel history.
1. What is the Zika virus? The virus is spread by the same type of mosquito that carries dengue and chikungunya, which is endemic in tropical countries like the Americas and South East Asia. Humans can be carriers of the virus; however, it is not spread from person to person, but when a non-carrier mosquito gets it from the infected human and then transfers it to other people, explains Peter Jay Hotez, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston in an article for Yahoo Health.
2. What are its symptoms? Only about one in five people infected with the Zika virus actually gets sick. Symptoms include mild fever (less than 38.5°Celcius), conjunctivitis (red, itchy, sore eyes), pain behind the eyes, headache, muscle and joint pain (usually in the hands and feet), and a rash, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The symptoms generally last two to seven days, but often go unnoticed, or misdiagnosed as dengue, unless one is specifically tested for the virus. The tests can only be done by the CDC, but the Brazil Health Ministry said it has developed a new testing kit that would help identify the presence of anitbodies that fight the Zika virus, as well as dengue and chikungunya, in the blood more promptly.
3. How is it treated? There is no effective treatment for the Zika infection. Doctors would usually only monitor the patient to prevent dehydration and prescribe medicines to help alleviate symptoms. There is also no vaccine available to prevent infection. The only way to prevent infection is to eliminate the mosquitoes’ breeding ground and avoiding contact with the virus-carrying mosquitos with the help of mosquito-repelling products or cover-ups.
4. Should pregnant women be worried? While the link between the Zika virus and microcephaly has not been proven, pregnant women are advised to get tested for the virus, and women in child-bearing age are asked to delay pregnancy, especially those who have traveled to countries that have reported incidents of the infection. “We’re seeing illness when it strikes women who are pregnant, and it’s producing a horrific effect of microcephaly,” Dr. Hotez says. If a pregnant women tested possitive for the virus, she should have a fetal ultrasound to look for microcephaly or calcification inside baby's the developing skull.
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Brazil has had close to 4,000 reported cases of children born with microcephaly since October, compared to just 150 reported cases in 2014. In November 2014, Brazil's Health Ministry announced that during an autopsy, it had found the virus in a baby born with microcephaly, establishing a link between the two. The U.S. State Department had also confirmed its first case of a baby, in Hawaii, born with brain damage because of infection by the Zika virus.
Aside from having abnormally small heads, babies born with microcephaly suffer from underdeveloped brains, according to the Mayo Cinic. It’s potentially fatal when an underdeveloped brain is not able to control the vital functions of the body to live. Babies who survive will most likely suffer from developmental delays or intellectual disabilities. There is no treatment for microcephaly; however, early intervention and supportive therapies could help.
Sources: January 23, 2016. "10 Essential Facts About the Zika Virus" (yahoo.com) January 21, 2016. "The alarming threat of Zika virus" (bbc.com) January 19, 2016. "C.D.C. Urges Zika Testing for Some Who Are Pregnant" (nytimes.com) January 17, 2016. "Brazil Zika outbreak: New test kits for mosquito-borne viruses (bbc.com) December 24, 2015. "Brazil warns against pregnancy due to psreading virus" (cnn.com)