A disease linked to the Zika virus in Latin America poses a global public health emergency requiring a united response, says the World Health Organization.
Zika is a virus spread by mosquitoes that affects its victims with a fever rash, joint pain and red eyes. In most cases, the illness is mild with symptoms lasting less than week. But a possible link between the virus in pregnant women that has been causing recent birth defects is being investigated.
The virus has spread mostly through the South American region, affecting countries like Brazil, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Venezuela.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, no locally transmitted Zika cases have been reported in the continental United States, but cases have been reported in returning travelers. In Texas, Zika was found to have been transmitted by sexual contact between a virus-infected person and a sexual partner.
Currently there is no vaccine or medication to stop Zika. The only way to avoid it is to avoid Aedes mosquitoes.
The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, joint pain muscle pain and headache. The incubation period (time from exposure to symptoms) for Zika is likely to be a few days to a week. Despite its state of emergency in the Southern Hemisphere, deaths from the virus are rare. The declaration of emergency isn’t reporting the actual virus, but its large cluster of birth and neurological defects, including microcephaly, a congenital condition associated with incomplete brain development.
“I am now declaring that the recent cluster of microcephaly and other neurological abnormalities a public health emergency,” said the director general of the World Health Organization.
The WHO director says the main priorities were to protect pregnant women and their babies from harm and control the mosquitoes spreading the virus.
The outbreak is believed to have begun in the Brazilian city of Recife, where doctors figured out what was happening to pregnant women. Doctors throughout the city continued research to find where the sudden microcephaly outbreak began.
“It’s not normal,” said Dr. Vanessa Van der Linden of Oswaldo Cruz Hospital, “Sometimes we go three or four months and don’t see a baby with microcephaly, so it was very strange.”
There was even a case where she discovered seven babies with the defect in one day.
The director of the Welcome Trust foresees “a long road ahead.”
“As with Ebola, Zika has once again exposed the world’s vulnerability to emerging infectious diseases and the devastation they can unleash,” Dr. Jeremy Farar said. “Alongside the emergency response that Zika necessitates, we must put in place the permanent reforms, health systems strengthening research agenda that are needed to make the global health system more resilient to the threat of future pandemics.”