Zika Virus: What You Need to Know

Once relatively unknown, Zika virus is in the middle of an explosive epidemic in Brasil and other South American countries. While common symptoms are mild, pregnant women should be wary as contracting Zika virus during pregnancy appears to be linked to microcephaly in their babies.

What can we expect from Zika virus in the Americas? Read on to find out.

Zika virus is originally from Africa, exactly how and when this virus got to South America is currently unknown. Importantly, this virus is transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes, which have a habitat that covers a large portion of South, Central, and North America. This makes Zika an arbovirus (arthropod-borne) similar to other major human disease like Dengue virus and Chikungunya virus. This means we can expect that wherever there are Aedes mosquitoes there is the potential to have Zika virus outbreaks. This area now includes parts of Florida, Texas, and the Southern US (although we have yet to see cases contracted in these regions).

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Currently the CDC has advised pregnant women not to travel to Zika affected areas, Brazil is recommending women to delay additional pregnancies, while El Salvador has gone as far as urging women to wait until 2018 to become pregnant.

Following the trend that we’ve seen with other disease such as Dengue and Chikungunya, it appears that Zika will establish itself in the Americas and will not be a single epidemic that dissipates. This transition from epidemic to endemic is important, as it implies that  Zika is now a naturalized disease in these regions that will continue to cause infections and microcephaly unless the conditions that promote Zika transmission are disrupted or an effective therapeutic is introduced.

Given the difficulties in developing effective vaccines  and targeted therapeutics for the Flaviviruses (which includes Zika virus, Dengue virus, and West Nile virus) the best methods for control of Zika in the short term are controlling where mosquitoes can breed near humans in order to minimize the risk of further transmission.

So do we need to worry about Zika virus? Unless you are pregnant, no; as this disease is relatively mild. Non-pregnant individuals are at a higher risk of Dengue Fever or Chikungunya virus disease in these same regions, making Zika virus a serious concern only for women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant.

We will only truly know the impact of Zika virus in the coming months and years as it spreads and establishes itself in new areas, especially as climate change expands the range of the Aedes mosquito that carries Zika. Projections now state the only Canada and Chile will be without Zika virus in the future.

What we are seeing here is the inevitable confluence of globalization, climate change, and the disruption of normal natural ecosystems. Zika virus may be high-profile, but this is not the first and will not be the last virus to make an explosive entrance on the world stage. Many Americas have been incredibly lucky, growing up in an era where humanity eradicated Smallpox, we had an effective antibiotic arsenal, and it seemed as though we had finally escaped the torment of the microbial diseases that have plagued humanity for eons. Zika is a reminder that this comfort is an illusion, and that the microbial world is always capable of reminding humanity of our own fragility.

[Featured image courtesy of Flickr user jentavery, used under Creative Commons license]

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