The Outbreak of Zika in the Americas
It sounds like one of those plagues not uncommon in the Middle Ages. People would get suddenly ill and maybe die in a couple of hours. In the popular mythology of the times, plagues were usually associated with the rage of a deity, who used the disease as a means to meting out punishment on sinners or their families.
Luckily, we live in slightly more enlightened days. Besides, the effects of Zika are milder in adults (so far): fever, rash, joint pains and red eyes (conjunctivitis), lasting for some seven days in average, are the most common. However, Zika has been linked to devastating consequences in newly-born babies, when the mother has been bitten by the mosquito during pregnancy: microcephaly (smaller brain sizes than the normal) and the resulting malfunction of the organ for life.
It surprises many people that we still do not have vaccines or proper treatment to deal with these kinds of threats. In the age iPhones, the Internet, robotics, advanced genome studies and 3D-printing, how can we still be susceptible and defeated by a simple and despicable mosquito. Just swat them!
Not so simple. The Zika virus is not new. Outbreaks have been reported in tropical Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands before. This time, however, it looks like it all started during the beginning of the hot summer in sunny Brazil last year. Experts say the phenomenon El Niño may have been one of the causes, allowing a greater number of mosquitos to proliferate in the region. In any case, the problem is now international: a couple of days ago – on Jan 28th - the World Health Organization has warned of an explosive spreading of the disease! South America, Central America and Mexico have all already registered cases and the numbers are on the rise.
With the increase of international travel, the whole world has been put under alert and coordinated efforts and measures to stop the pandemic are being taken. Governments, no doubt, will want to avoid the harsh criticism they received due the lack of organization and combined steps in the fight against Ebola, which struck West Africa a couple of years ago.
Transmission: the Zika virus is transmitted by the mosquito Aedes aegypti, whose bite may also cause two other diseases: dengue and Chikungunya. The virus may be passed on from mothers to unborn babies. It may also be transmitted through blood transfusion or sexual contact. The mosquito breeds very fast in stagnant waters and transmits the disease by passing on the virus from the blood of a contaminated person to the next. 1 in 5 people bit by a contaminated mosquito is likely to develop the symptoms.
• Unfortunately there’s no vaccine or proper treatment against the virus.
• The main way to counteract Zika is to eliminate the mosquito (fumigation teams are at work in areas identified as more likely to have the mosquitos in Brazil) or preventing it from breeding. So, a careful control of possible breeding grounds (any recipient that may accumulate stagnant water, from plant pots to vases and bowls to animal dishes and discarded tyres) should be monitored.
• Wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants – which can be really uncomfortable in warm places like Brazil.
• Air-conditioned environments are less likely to have mosquitoes, as well as the use of screens for doors and windows, and bed nets (although the mosquito is more likely to bite in the daytime).
• Repellents are also recommended, but most drugstores run out of them as soon as new stocks arrive, which is a huge problem.
• Women have been recommended to postpone pregnancy plans or avoid travelling to areas where more numbers of cases have already been detected– such as Brazil.
Treatment: there are no clearly set measures or medicine to treat the disease. Doctors recommend patients should rest as much as possible and keep hydrated through the intake of plenty of fluids. Consult your doctor to find out which medicines you may take to reduce fever or pain (as not all of the usual ones are recommended).
The Brazilian Government worries the spreading of the virus might compromise the success of the Olympic Games to take place in Rio in August, reducing the number of tourists and putting athletes in danger.