Zika virus: what you need to know

The virus is causing worldwide concern after it was linked to birth defects

Daniel Besant
February 3, 2016
Zika virus: what you need to know
An Aedes Aegypti mosquito. Aedes mosquitos carry the zika virus. Photo: EPA/Jeffrey Arguedas

The virus is causing worldwide concern after it was linked to birth defects

What is Zika virus?
Zika is the name of a virus that is related to dengue, yellow fever and West Nile virus. Transmitted to humans via the Aedes mosquito, symptoms appear a few days after a person is bitten by an infected mosquito. Most people with Zika virus disease will develop a slight fever and a rash. Some may also experience muscle and joint pain, conjunctivitis and tiredness. The generally mild symptoms usually pass within two to seven days. There is also evidence that the virus can be transmitted through bodily fluids and today it was reported a US man had contracted it through sexual contact.

zika, aeades
An Aedes Aegypti mosquito. Aedes mosquitos carry the zika virus. Photo: EPA/Jeffrey Arguedas

Where does it come from?
The virus was first discovered in 1947 in Uganda. Until recently, most cases were confined to Africa and South Asia. In 2007, an outbreak occurred in the Western Pacific, and since 2013, cases have been reported from that region and in the Americas and Africa. There was a large outbreak in Brazil in May that it has since been steadily spreading across the Americas.
On Monday, World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general Margaret Chan gave a stark statement about its spread. “I am now declaring that the recent cluster of microcephaly and other neurological abnormalities reported in Latin America following a similar cluster in French Polynesia in 2014 constitutes a public health emergency of international concern,” she told reporters.
Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director WHO Southeast Asia, yesterday released recommendations for regional governments. “The regional director is recommending countries to build the capacity of their laboratories to detect the virus and strengthen surveillance for cases of fever and rash, neurological syndromes and birth defects.”
He also advised governments to intensify programmes to control mosquito numbers and to prepare their health services for “managing” Zika virus.
Why is it so dangerous?
The disease has been linked to microcephaly, which causes babies to be born with brain abnormalities. The WHO has advised pregnant women to avoid areas where Zika virus is present, while those living in infected areas have been told to seek medical advice and protect themselves from mosquito bites.
Is Zika present in Southeast Asia?
Yes, but cases are rare. Thailand is reportedly the worst-hit country in the region, with seven cases recorded between 2010 and 2014 and last week a Thai man was diagnosed with the disease in Taiwan. Yesterday, was reported that Indonesia recorded one case on Sumatra and an Australian man contracted the disease after visiting Bali. On Friday, Cambodia’s Ministry of Health warned citizens to protect themselves from mosquito bites as the virus is present in the Kingdom and urged those who had recently travelled to Africa, South America or Central Amer­ica to seek medical attention if they developed symptoms associated with Zika, the Cambodia Daily reported. No case has been reported in the country since 2010, the newspaper said. The WHO cautions that cases are likely to be underreported but, so far, no link between microcephaly and Zika has been found in the region.
Is there a treatment or vaccine for Zika virus?
The WHO says common pain and fever medicines can be used to treat symptoms. There is currently no vaccine available.
How can you protect yourself?
As with all mosquito-borne diseases, the best protection is to avoid being bitten by the insects. Aedes mosquitos are most active during the day, in the two hours after sunrise and in the three hours before sunset.
“People can protect themselves against mosquito bites by using insect repellent, wearing clothes that cover as much of the body as possible and using physical barriers such as screens, closed doors and windows,” said the WHO’s Singh. “Everyone should help prevent breeding mosquitos by emptying containers that hold standing water in and around their houses.”

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