Last May, Zika virus made headlines when an outbreak began in Brazil and spread quickly to surrounding countries. Zika is a tropical virus that was discovered in 1947 in the Zika Forest in Uganda. It had previously been found in Africa and Southeast Asia but recently made its way to the Americas. In February, the World Health Organization declared the complications of Zika virus an international public health emergency.
Zika is spread by infected Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes — the same mosquitoes that spread yellow fever and dengue. The virus can also be transmitted sexually, though that is likely less common.
The virus causes a relatively mild, weeklong illness in most people, but many don’t develop symptoms. Those who contract Zika might experience fever, rashes, joint pain and conjunctivitis. Once infected, a person is most likely immune to future infections.
But don’t discount the impact of Zika. If a woman is infected during pregnancy, her fetus is at risk. The virus can cause microcephaly — a condition in which a baby is born with an abnormally small head, often a sign of problems with brain development — and other brain defects, which can lead to lifelong health problems such as developmental delay, seizures and issues with hearing and vision. The virus has also been linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can cause temporary paralysis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating the connection to Zika.
Health officials in several countries, including Brazil and Colombia, have suggested that women delay pregnancy. And the CDC has issued travel notices for countries affected by Zika, advising pregnant women not to visit those areas. Several hundred travel-associated cases have appeared across the continental United States, but the virus is also circulating locally in some U.S. territories, especially in Puerto Rico. Summertime could boost the spread of Zika in the U.S., and Gulf Coast states are considered most at risk.
There’s no medicine or vaccine yet. A dozen or so companies are working on a vaccine, but that could take years. The White House has asked Congress for almost $1.9 billion and has redirected some Ebola funds to help fight the virus. But with so much still unknown about Zika, it’s hard to say how much money is needed to get it under control. For now, the solution is to prevent mosquito bites with insect repellent, long sleeves and pants, window screens and air conditioning.
As the weather warms up and the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro approach, many are anxious about how far and wide the outbreak could spread. But when it comes to what we know about Zika virus and its impacts, at least after watching this video you can say, “Now I get it.”