What you need to know about the Zika virus
What is it?
The tropical Zika virus (also known as flavivirus) is an infection carried by the Aedes mosquito. This is the same vector species responsible for the spread of dengue fever and the chikungunya virus.
Incidence and transmission
The Zika virus is transmitted through the bite by an infected mosquito. The virus usually remains in the blood for only a few days, yet can remain for longer in some individuals. If an infected individual is bitten by a mosquito during this incubation period, the virus can then be passed on to others.
Although not yet scientifically proven, the current pandemic is thought to be linked to the birth defect microencephaly or ‘shrunken head’ syndrome. This deformity can cause immense pain, and potentially future learning difficulties, to affected babies, and the psychological impact on parents can also be immense. The number of babies born with a noticeably small head in Brazil has nearly reached 4,000 since October 2015. As the number is increasing, experts have suggested that there may be a link with the Zika virus. Howver, to date, such a link has only been established in a few babies.
Symptoms mimic the flu, dengue and chikungunya virus and are usually mild, lasting from a few days or up to a week to 12 days. The main symptoms are:
- Joint and/or muscle pains;
- Possible rash.
Riks factors include being present in an area where infected mosquitoes reside and not taking basic precautions against mosquito bites (such as using sleeping nets at night, wearing insect repellent or burning repellent coils). Although many people may be unaware or asymptomatic when they contract the virus, pregnant women are thought to be those most at risk. This would explain the possible link to microencephalis.
Treatment and prevention
As with the common flu, individuals are advised to rest, remain hydrated and take medicines such as paracetamol or acetaminophen to relieve pain and spikes in temperature. People are advised against taking aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen and naproxen, which should be avoided until dengue is ruled out to reduce the risk of haemorrhage.
Although the virus not thought to be contagious, countries such as the US are advising pregnant women to reconsider visiting countries where the Zika virus is present.
Government officials from Latin American and Caribbean countries (Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador and Jamaica) are advising women to try to delay pregnancy until the current outbreak is stopped or controlled. The Brazilian authorities are making attempts to clear and/or treat stagnant water where mosquitos tend to breed.
Attempts at producing a vaccine are currently being made, but its availability may take up to ten years.