You’ve heard it on the news, seen it on the web and heard rumblings on your morning commute. The Zika virus has surged into mainstream media, and as cases continue to rise in Latin America, the World Health Organization has declared a global emergency in an important step to tackle the outbreak.
What is it and where did it come from?
According to the World Health Organization, the first case of the mosquito-borne disease was identified back in 1947 in Uganda, with outbreaks recorded in Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Americas since. But today’s outbreak is far less contained, and appears to be rapidly spreading across regions in Latin America and the Caribbean. The first reports of Zika came from Brazil in May, 2015. What else should you know? Here are the facts:
- How it’s spread:The virus is transmitted through the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito, which is the type of mosquito that generally causes dengue and yellow fever. Unlike malaria-infected mosquitoes, which bite at night, Aedes mosquitoes usually bite during the day.
- What are the signs? Symptoms of Zika virus may include mild fever, skin rashes, muscle and joint pain, conjunctivitis (pink eye), headache, or discomfort. These symptoms last anywhere from 2 to 7 days.
- How to prevent the spread of Zika: Currently, there is no treatment or vaccine available. The best way to prevent Zika virus is to protect against mosquitoes, using repellents, sleeping under bed nets during the day, and preventing possible mosquito breeding sites by cleaning or emptying vessels that contain or store water.
- Who is at risk? People exposed to bites by infected mosquitos are at risk of contracting Zika. Additionally, evidence has shown that the virus can be transmitted sexually. Studies are currently examining other possible transmission modes. While the virus itself may not present any symptoms (though symptoms can include fever, skin rash, headache, and joint pain), researchers have identified conclusive links between the virus and two rare but serious conditions: microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome.While most people who contract Guillain-Barré syndrome will recover fully within a few weeks, babies born with microcephaly can suffer physical or developmental disabilities and require support their entire lives. This can put an enormous strain on families, particularly those who are already vulnerable due to poverty or other factors.
There is currently no vaccine to protect against the Zika virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) advises that taking measures to prevent insect bites in affected countries will help protect against transmission by infected mosquitos. WHO also advises that people living in affected areas of having recently returned from an affected area practice safe sexual activity or consider abstaining for a period of time. For more detailed information on preventing transmission, see the World Health Organization’s Zika virus fact sheet.
Diseases know no boundaries or borders
Today’s outbreak has impacted more than 30 countries to date. Despite better public health systems and quick responses in many parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, the Zika virus could affect as many as 4 million people.
Plan International works in 12 countries in South America and the Caribbean. We are carrying out public health campaigns and mosquito control measures in several communities in the affected regions to help prevent the outbreak. Our activities and interventions include:
- Mass cleaning campaigns to get rid of mosquito breeding sites and containers where water can accumulate.
- Educating communities on mosquito control measures
- Providing safe water containers to people
- Supplying mosquito repellent in affected areas
- Promoting the use of bed nets when sleeping during susceptible hours
- Placing fish in water containers to eat mosquito larvae to help eradicate breeding grounds.
Though the precise impact of the Zika virus may not be known for some time, there will likely be a significant economic impact as tourism takes a major hit in the affected countries. Plan International staff is on the ground coordinating with local governments and efforts at national levels to combat the spread of the virus.