Having spread to almost every country in the Americas, on 1 February 2016, the Zika virus was declared a global public health emergency by World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan, who called it an “extraordinary event“. On 13 April 2016, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report confirming that the Zika virus does cause a rare birth defect called microcephaly – a neurological disorder that results in babies being born with abnormally small heads and developmental issues. A CDC travel alert is currently in place, warning pregnant women to avoid travel to countries where Zika is present because of the risk to their unborn babies. The CDC is also investigating the link to an increased likelihood of developing Guillain-Barre syndrome. Doctors have known for years that Zika virus is associated with Guillain-Barre syndrome, in which the body attacks its own nerves, causing paralysis. However, research also links Zika to a second autoimmune disorder called acute disseminated encephalomyelitis. It resembles multiple sclerosis and involves a swelling of the brain and spinal cord. New studies also show that the Zika virus appears to hone in on brain cells and kill them.
The Zika virus is typically transmitted by mosquitoes but can also be spread sexually, causing the CDC to update its guidance to couples. There are two mosquito species capable of spreading the virus; Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus (Asian Tiger) mosquitoes. Also capable of transmitting dengue fever and Chikungunya, these species are aggressive daytime biters, which means being vigilant at all times, covering up and reapplying repellent regularly. The Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus) is well established throughout the United States, and is currently found in 40 states and Washington D.C. As mosquito season gets under way, public health officials are bracing for local outbreaks of the Zika virus in the continental U.S. Thousands of travelers from Latin America and the Caribbean have already come back infected — hundreds of those cases have been documented — and if a mosquito bites someone with an active infection, it could potentially carry the virus to someone else.
Most people infected with Zika (80%) have no symptoms or don’t realise they have it because symptoms are typically mild. Common signs to look out for include slight fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis (red eyes). There is no vaccine, treatment or cure for the disease and travelers to infected areas are being urged to prevent mosquito bites as the best and only protection against the disease
The World Health Organization estimates 3 to 4 million people across the Americas, will be infected with the virus in the coming year. To date the Zika virus is now being locally transmitted in Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Cape Verde, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, Suriname, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Venezuela.