It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets any better, and scientific knowledge of the Zika virus remains low.
Now categorised as a public health emergency by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the virus was discovered in the Zika forest in Uganda in the 1940s. From being incredibly rare it quickly became endemic in some regions of Africa before spreading to Southeast Asia, French Polynesia, Latin America and now, well, everywhere.
Compounding the rate at which the virus is spreading is the news that infection is not solely through a mosquito’s bite. Only a few days ago a patient diagnosed with the first case of Zika in mainland America was said to have been infected with the virus through sexual transmission.
Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have now warned for the first time that pregnant women or those hoping to become pregnant should ‘consult with their healthcare professional if their partner has had exposure to Zika virus.’ With little known about the sexual transmission of the virus, the risks of exposure may be behind the sudden explosion of cases that have seen Zika spread so quickly.
While the urgency from WHO and the recognition of Zika as a major global issue has now brought new perspective to the risks, there doesn’t appear to be any consensus on what the right approach to controlling the spread of the virus is, nor on the fast-track development of a vaccine. Estimates of 12 months to develop a vaccine are stymied by the regulatory frameworks of the Federal Drug Agency (FDA) that would delay access to a Zika vaccine for years, some say up to a decade.
Zika is part of a family of mosquito-borne viruses which includes West Nile virus, an illness better known and treatable, which is passed through the same Aedes aegypti mosquito. Symptoms of Zika tend to be milder than those of viruses in the same category and misdiagnosis has assisted in creating the pandemic.
Major news stories began appearing on the Zika virus after it was connected with a massive increase in cases of microcephaly in Latin America, particularly in northern Brazil. Microcephaly is a debilitating, life-long birth defect that leaves children with abnormally small heads and a host of severe developmental and physical problems. At the beginning of this week, the Brazilian Health Ministry said the suspected and confirmed cases of newborns with microcephaly linked to the Zika virus in Brazil had increased to 4,074 as of 30 January, up from 3,718 a week earlier.