Zika virus outbreak: a global health emergency

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared a worldwide state of emergency based on the recent outbreak of Zika virus in Brazil and other countries in Central and South America. This global health emergency places the virus in the same category as Ebola, and therefore should be treated accordingly.

Zika virus was first isolated in monkeys from Uganda in 1947, with the first human case found in Nigeria in 1954. Brazil has been experiencing a rapid outbreak of Zika virus since May 2015. Though the effects of the virus are generally mild in adults, the major cause for concern is the development of microcephaly in unborn babies.

Microcephaly is a condition where babies are born with significantly smaller heads than usual due to abnormal brain development, often leading to developmental problems and other significant health issues. There is no treatment for the condition, however early intervention methods such as speech and occupational therapy may help improve quality of life.

Brazil reported only 150 cases of microcephaly in 2014, however as of October 2015 there were already 404 confirmed cases in that year with 3,670 still being investigated. Though the precise biological link between Zika virus and microcephaly is unclear, there is certainly a correlation between the virus and subsequent birth defect.

Since the May 2015 outbreak in Brazil, Zika virus has also been documented in Barbados, Bolivia, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guadeloupe, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, Suriname and Venezuela.

The virus is vectored by Aedes mosquitoes, which are found throughout the Americas except in Canada and Chile. These mosquitoes become infected by feeding on an infected individual. They can then go on to transmit the virus to other individuals on which they feed. It is noteworthy that these mosquitos are highly active during the day, therefore bed nets offer limited protection.

Moreover, there is some evidence that the Zika virus may be sexually transmitted. Public health officials are urging individuals in affected countries to use barrier methods during sex, as well as to consider delaying getting pregnant.

Public Health is encouraging those who think they might be pregnant to avoid travelling to potentially affected countries. Travel-related cases of Zika have also been reported in Canada, therefore it is important to be conscious of where you are travelling and the associated risks. Diligent hand-washing is the best method in preventing infection when travelling to an affected country. If you are travelling down south this spring, it is important to conduct prior research on the prevalence of Zika in the area and how you can prevent potential infection.

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