World
22.5.16

A Global Threat: the Zika Virus

The source of this photo is by Videoconferência na Sala Nacional de Coordenação e Controle para Enfrentamento da dengue, chikungunya e Zika vírus, em Brasília. The author is Ministério da Defesa. From Wikimedia Commons.

A US public health official announced that the Zika virus could be “scarier” than first thought.  Dr Anne Schuchat of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned that the virus could travel to more states than previously predicted – 30 rather than 12 – and that a wider range of birth defects could be linked to the virus.

The virus in question was first seen in the 1940s in Uganda where there were sporadic cases. At this time, Zika was considered a rarity and not viewed as a threat. However, following the outbreak of microcephaly in Brazil in October last year, Zika is taken much more seriously. Since then, in Brazil there have been over 4,000 cases of microcephaly, a condition in which babies are born with underdeveloped brains and abnormally small heads.

Originally, scientists were unsure of whether the Zika virus and microcephaly were connected. However, by tracking transmission, they have demonstrated a strong link to support the theory that Zika is the culprit for the microcephaly outbreak. Researchers also were able to pinpoint the Zika virus in placenta’s of women who had miscarried babies infected with microcephaly or babies who died shortly after birth.

It is thought that the virus has been island-hopping across the Pacific since 2007 before reaching Brazil. The life cycle of the insect that transmits the virus, the Ades mosquito, makes transmission worryingly easy. If someone is bitten by an infected mosquito, they will have the virus in their bloodstream within a fortnight. If they then travel to another country and get bitten by another mosquito, that mosquito becomes infected and can transmit the virus throughout the area.

Videoconferência_na_Sala_Nacional_de_Coordenação_e_Controle_para_Enfrentamento_da_dengue,_chikungunya_e_Zika_vírus,_em_Brasília._(24576476372)

The source of this photo is by Videoconferência na Sala Nacional de Coordenação e Controle para Enfrentamento da dengue, chikungunya e Zika vírus, em Brasília. The author is Ministério da Defesa. From Wikimedia Commons.

The ease with which the virus can spread from country to country has heightened the fear of what will happen when the Olympic Games hit Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Areas around the Olympic stadium have large bodies of stagnant water, the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. Brazilian authorities have said they will fumigate areas around the park; however, other than that it seems serious action is not yet being taken.

With a total lack of either treatment or vaccine, it seems that the continent is extremely underprepared for this outbreak. Scientists are saying that even with the process being fast tracked, the earliest possible date for a vaccine would be 2018. Until then, foetuses which contract the virus are at risk of dying in utero or shortly after birth or having lifelong complications in terms of their cognitive capabilities. It has also been reported that prevention techniques such as covering up or wearing insect repellents have not been communicated to the general public sufficiently by Brazilian authorities.

The United States has jumped on the bandwagon to develop a vaccine following 358 cases being reported in the country, with President Obama asking Congress earlier this year for $1.9bn to combat the outbreak. The CDC also announced that Puerto Rico is to receive $3.7 million as the number of cases doubles there every week.

The Americas are scrambling to find a vaccine or treatment. At the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the United States, scientists are trying to fast forward the process. They have almost succeeded in developing a vaccine that is ready for phase one trials; however, this phase is designed solely to test the safety of the vaccine in humans and does not mean it is anywhere near ready for distribution. The process of developing a vaccine is long and drawn-out. Even viruses that have been around for 70 or 80 years have not yet had a safe vaccine developed. Therefore, in light of the fact that it will take at least two years to develop a vaccine for Zika, perhaps efforts would be best directed at educating people about prevention techniques, something the authorities have yet to implement.

Global Seven News

Jade Parker

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