UPDATE: 1/28/2016 4:57 PM ET
USA Today reports that The World Health Organization will hold an emergency meeting Monday in Geneva to determine how to tackle the Zika virus, which it said is “spreading explosively” in the Americas.
It is “deeply concerning” the virus has now been detected in more than 20 countries and territories in the Americas since Brazil reported its first case in May, WHO director general Margaret Chan said. “The level of alarm is extremely high,” she added.
The specialized U.N. agency was criticized for its slow response to the Ebola outbreak in 2013. Now, it could declare an international health emergency when a group of independent experts meet Monday in Geneva.
The virus, spread by Aedes mosquitoes, has been associated with a sharp jump in the birth of babies with abnormally small heads. It is also linked to increases in Guillain-Barre syndrome, in which the immune system attacks the nervous system, causing paralysis.
SOURCE: USA Today
The Zika virus has the potential to become the biggest mosquito-borne disease to hit the global community since the West Nile virus. On Monday, the World Health Organization announced the virus, which causes serious birth defects, has officially spread to over 20 countries in North and South America, as well as the Caribbean.
The seemingly mild flu-like virus was discovered in monkeys in Uganda back in 1947, according to the BBC. The name ‘Zika’ stems from the African forest in which it was discovered. From there, Zika spread to Pakistan and Indonesia, eventually making its way to Brazil in 2014, where it has since affected the most people. Zika’s biggest threat is to unborn children and causes the birth defect microcephaly: abnormal smallness of the head, a congenital condition associated with incomplete brain development. A total of 3,893 suspected cases of microcephaly have been documented in Brazil since October.
The virus travels through Aedes mosquitos, which are common in all nations in the Western Hemisphere with the exception of Canada and Chile.
There is no known cure, but many countries, including the United States, are taking drastic measures to ensure the safety of its citizens. Here are six things you need to know about the Zika virus:
12 Cases Have Been Found In The U.S. So Far
The Zika virus was first confirmed in Houston, Texas earlier this month, but there have been reports of the case in America as far back as 2007. The Houston patient recently traveled to Latin America. Cases in California and New York have also been found in travelers. A baby born in Hawaii tested positive for Zika.
The virus’ symptoms include rashes, fever, headaches, pain behind the eyes, and joint pain. Only one in five people will experience symptoms that last up to seven days. While there are known Aedes mosquitos in America, there’s no proof they’re infected with the virus. Researchers predict the possibility of a Zika outbreak in America is relatively small. Because of window screens, ample access to insect repellent, and air conditioners, it is unlikely the virus will become a huge problem. [NBC Los Angeles]
Zika’s Link To Microcephaly Has Strengthened
A connection to microcephaly and Zika was discovered in Brazil last year, when unborn babies tested positive for the birth defect. So far, there have been 3,500 cases of microcephaly in Recife, Pernambuco, the country’s most affected state. Microcephaly causes underdeveloped brains in children due to an abnormally sized skull. Life expectancy for children with microcephaly is reduced. There is no cure. Leaders in Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Jamaica have recommended women avoid pregnancy until 2017 to reduce the number of microcephaly cases. [BBC News]
Zika Has Been Compared To The Ebola Virus
The Zika virus isn’t fatal, but researchers working to find a vaccine have likened the experience to that of the Ebola virus. Trudie Lang, a professor of global health at the University of Oxford, explained the process as a kind of deja vu. “We’ve got no drugs and we’ve got no vaccines,” Lang said. “It’s a case of deja vu because that’s exactly what we were saying with Ebola. It’s really important to develop a vaccine as quickly as possible.” Because of the uncertainty that lies in commercial success for drug companies, the timeline to create an effective vaccine can take up to three to five years. British and French drug companies are reviewing its vaccine technology in accordance with the Zika virus. [Reuters]
Two Cases Have Been Linked To Sexual Contact
While both cases have been labeled a rarity, the Zika virus may have been sexually transmitted. The first case traces back to 2008. Dr. Brian D. Foy and his graduate student Kevin C. Kobylinski were in Senegal researching insect-borne diseases for their work at Colorado State University, when they were bitten several times by mosquitos. After returning to the States, the men displayed rashes and other flu-like symptoms; Dr. Foy also suffered from blood in his semen. Joy L. Chilson Foy, Dr. Foy’s wife, developed the same symptoms, but did not travel out of the state. Their frozen blood samples tested positive for the virus a year later. While Dr. Foy requested money to research the disease, there was little interest in Zika back then. In 2013, the second sexually transmitted case appeared when a 44-year-old Tahitian man was infected in French Polynesia. Zika was found in his semen after the virus disappeared from his blood. Doctors don’t believe the cases “warrant a large public health recommendation from the CDC,” but nevertheless, they should be studied. [New York Times]
Are The Olympic Games in Jeopardy?
Authorities in Brazil have assured the public that measures are being taken to battle the Zika virus for those participating in the 2016 Summer Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro. Mayor Eduardo Paes announced this week that inspectors will start spraying insecticide around the Sambadrome, where the upcoming Carnival celebration is set to take place. An estimated 200,000 health inspectors will also visit homes to inform and educate the public about the disease. [Deutsche Welle]
PAHO: Reducing Breeding Sites Will Result In Lower Possibility For Zika Outbreak
In WHO’s alert to the public, the Pan American Health Organization recommended eliminating breeding sites for Aedes mosquitos in order to reduce instances of the disease. This means utilizing insect repellent and disposing of anything that can hold water, such as old tires and containers around the household. Other possibilities for transmission are currently under investigation, but blood donations and transfusions have been placed under precaution. Researchers recommend using screens and mosquito nets, and keeping windows and doors closed whenever possible. [PAHO]
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty