In November 2015 a new virus caught the world's attention and many now fear a global pandemic. The relatively new mosquito-borne virus is responsible for a neurological birth disorder that has spread incredibly rapidly across South America and beyond - into 24 countries. There is wide spread concern that the virus will soon be threatening other continents too. In excess of 4200 cases of Microcephaly were found in Brazilian born babies in 2015 because their mothers were infected with the virus, this is in stark contrast to the 146 cases reported in 2014.
The situation has now been declared a public health emergency after World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan stated, "The level of alarm is extremely high."
The Zika virus, is a mosquito borne infection that is carried and transmitted by the aggressive Aedes aegypti or Yellow Fever mosquito. The WHO estimates that the number of people infected by the virus will amount to 3 to 4 million people across the Americas within twelve months. There is currently no vaccine to prevent the virus and no medicine to cure it.
The virus is transmitted just like malaria. The Aedes mosquito bites a person who is infected and then spreads the virus by biting other people. These people then become carriers themselves. Symptoms include mild fever, headache, a rash, and sometimes pink eyes.
Who is Mainly at Risk?
The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) in the USA is warning pregnant women against travelling within South America, and any other area that is affected. Within the countries where the virus has already taken hold, medical officials are warning women against becoming pregnant, for a period of up to two years.
Early research suggests that the virus is symptomless in 80 per cent of sufferers, meaning carriers may not realise they have it. Pregnant women therefore are most at risk, as they can pass the virus to their unborn baby. The virus is linked to a neurological birth disorder called microcephaly, a condition that causes babies to be born with smaller-than-normal heads and brain defects that prevent normal development. Researchers are currently desperately trying to create a vaccine.
Will the Zika Virus Reach Spain?
It seems likely that the Zika virus will reach Europe and most areas across the globe, although scientists are working to contain the virus. The Spanish Health Minister, Alfonso Alonso, has appealed for calm in the country in response to a report issued by the Catalonian authorities that confirmed two cases of Zika infection in the country. Minister Alonso told Radio Nacional Espanola (RNE) listeners on January 26, that the risk of contracting the virus in Spain "is very low", but he did urge Spanish women with travel plans, to consult medical professionals before leaving Spain, particularly if they are pregnant.
The virus is easily spread. The two confirmed cases of Zika virus in Spain are of two South American women who visited their home countries over the Christmas period, before returning to Spain and being diagnosed. Fortunately, neither woman was pregnant, but reports suggest neither have fully recovered from the virus at this time.
In July 2016, the first case of Zika related Microcephaly was reported in Spain. The child was diagnosed with the condition after being delivered at the Vall D'Hebron hospital in Barcelona. It's believed that the mother contracted Zika after a recent visit to Colombia.
Which Countries are Currently Affected?
Besides Spain, a growing number of European countries have reported travellers returning from Latin America with Zika infections, including Britain, Denmark, Portugal, Italy, Switzerland and The Netherlands. Russia has not confirmed any cases thus far, although they are monitoring travellers. President Putin has stated that "mosquitoes cannot fly over the ocean, but infected people can and do" and has agreed to "work with transportation companies," to improve the identification of symptoms of the virus in a timely manner.
The virus is rife in Brazil, ahead of the Rio Olympics this summer, as well as Latin American countries such as Colombia, which has reported over 2,000 pregnant women testing positive for the virus, and Hawaii in the USA where a baby was born with microcephaly linked to the Zika virus after his mother returned from Brazil. Health officials in Illinois are monitoring two infected pregnant women.
Peru is the most recent country to report a Zika case. They have a Venezuelan patient who came to Peru from Colombia and has contracted the virus.
According to the CPDC, other countries affected by the Zika virus include Barbados, Bolivia, Cape Verde, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, Suriname, Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Venezuela.
Time to Worry?
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has stated that, "As long as the mosquito keeps reproducing, each and every one of us is losing the battle against the mosquito. We have to mobilize so we do not lose this battle," while Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health has stated this is a "pandemic in progress. It isn't as if it's turning around and dying out, it's getting worse and worse as the days go by."
Research is being undertaken into whether the virus can be transmitted during labour, through blood transfusions, exposure in the laboratory exposure or through sexual contact. Zika has been found in breast milk but it has not been confirmed that it can be passed to the baby through breastfeeding.
How Can You Prevent infection?
Simply stated, the best way to prevent infection from the Zika virus is to avoid travel to areas with an active infestation. If you MUST travel then use mosquito precaution measures – such as repellent, long trousers and long-sleeved shirts, and sleep in air-conditioned rooms. Note that the female Aedes aegypti, the primary carrier of Zika, is an aggressive biter, who prefers daytime to dusk and indoors to outdoors and can replicate in even small pools of stagnant water, including vases and glasses of water.