Zika: The known and the Unknown

In December 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Pan American Health Organization issued an alert warning of the zika virus infection. The virus is a mosquito-borne disease that causes a fever, headaches, conjunctivitis, etc.  Its clinical manifestation is similar to the dengue fever, which is also a mosquito-borne illness. 

Despite being recently introduced to Latin American countries, the virus has previously been reported in Africa, China and in the Oceanic Pacific region. Of the Latin American countries, the virus has been reported in Brazil, Panama, Colombia,El Salvador, Guatemala, Paraguay, Venezuela, Mexico Honduras and Suriname.  The first case, was reported in Colombia in October 2015.

In its communiqué, WHO alerted its member states to be prepared to diagnose people with this disease, prepare their health care system for potential additional burdens in their hospitals and implement strategies to reduce the number of mosquitoes that transport the virus. 

The Brazilian government has confirmed a link between the virus and the abnormal deformation of the fetus’ head, also known as microcephaly.  It’s important to note that although a link is certain, the cause is not.  It has not been established that the virus causes the malformation of the head, and the gravity of the risk has also not been confirmed,  particularly since the symptoms of the zika seem to go by unnoticed many times and thus, untreated. Conversely, the numbers of people affected by microcephaly could be much lower than the actual number of people with the zika fever. Thus, WHO does not suggest not getting pregnant as a method to prevent microcephaly. They do, however, recommend that pregnant women avoid contact with and protecting themselves from the mosquito.

But not all is bad news. Schmidt-Chanasit, explains that women who have been exposed to the zika virus already possess the antibodies to fight it and are thus able to get pregnant without the virus posing a risk to the baby.  Since it is not a recurring disease, the body’s antibodies are able to fight off the virus.

The  Control Disease and Prevention at the Institut Pasteur Bernhard-Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine are conducting studies concerning this virus.  In the meantime, Brazil is working on refining its technology so that it may be able to detect the virus before it’s too late, and also be able to distinguish between zika, dengue and other similar viruses. 

On 13 January 2016, the Brazil Ministry of Health reported the detection of zika virus in four cases of congenital malformation in the state of Rio Grande do Norte. The cases correspond to two miscarriages and two at full-term newborns (37 and 42 weeks respectively) who died in the first 24 hours of life.  The Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro has partnered with the Bernhard-Nocht Institute to develop a comparative study with pregnant women who were diagnosed with zika. The resulting research will hopefully reveal the differences between pregnant women with babies who have microcephaly and those who have “normal” babies. The hope is to develop a vaccine against the virus.


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