Once contained to the Eastern Hemisphere, the Zika virus within the past year has spread at an alarming rate into the Americas, primarily in South America and the Caribbean.
The virus has typically caused a minor illness, yet Zika is increasingly being linked to a spike in severe birth defects in Brazil, prompting travel warnings for pregnant women and causing alarm across the global medical community. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the Zika virus a global public health emergency.
The Zika virus was first identified in Uganda in 1947 in rhesus monkeys. Since then, it’s slowly moved across Africa into Asia, spread by two species of mosquitos, the Aedes aegypti mainly and the Aedes albopictus. These mosquitos can also spread dengue, chikungunya, or yellow fever. They’re widely distributed across North and South America and the Caribbean in tropical and sub-tropical climates. The albopictus mosquito is also found in more temperate climates, including the eastern half of the US.
During the past year the Zika virus has gone global – spreading across the Pacific Ocean, island hopping, and landing on the South American continent. From there, it’s spread through the mosquito population, mostly impacting the country of Brazil with an estimated 500,000 to 1.5 million people infected, and Colombia with an estimated 20,000 infected, compared to just a few dozen total across the rest of the Americas.
As Zika spread in Brazil during 2015, the northeast of the country saw an alarming rise in the number of cases of microcephaly, a birth defect that results in infants being born with abnormally small heads and brains. Health experts are working to determine if indeed there is a link between the arrival of Zika and the rise in reported cases of this rare birth defect.
What HHI is doing now
In the US, HHI’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Rick Randolph, along with fellow HHI board member Dr. Lee Norman, senior vice president and chief medical officer of the University of Kansas Hospital, are convening a panel of experts and working with Dr. Duane Spaulding, HHI’s senior medical advisor in Haiti and Dr. Jackenson Davilmar, HHI’s Haiti Medical Director, to help guide HHI’s response to this new viral threat.
In Haiti, our medical teams are already at work expanding our current efforts to combat mosquito-borne illnesses, and now have added a focus on Zika. As there is no vaccine nor cure for Zika, education is key in keeping infections down. The process takes place in doctor/patient encounters at clinic sites and in community meetings, as we
- educate residents to Zika fever – the risks, symptoms and treatment
- guide people in how to implement vector controls – like using treated mosquito nets and repellant, adding screens/mesh on windows and the need to elliminate mosquito breeding sites like standing water.
Additionally, we’re talking with women, before and during pregnancy, about the Zika virus, the recent developments and possible links to birth defects.
Two years ago, Haiti was hit very hard by the arrival of Chikungunya, a debilitating virus spread by mosquitos, which sickened thousands including several HHI staff members. That experience is helping us prepare for this current situation. Our permanent Haitian medical teams are already experienced in treating patients with mosquito-borne diseases like malaria, dengue fever and chikungunya. Now add Zika.
So far, there have been just a handful of confirmed cases in Haiti, though that’s expected to increase. Our medical staff is already in front of a potential widespread outbreak. Donate to keep us out front.
Is there a cure for the Zika virus?
There is no vaccine for the Zika virus. There is no cure.
If there’s no cure, how do you treat it?
People sick with Zika fever should get plenty of rest, drink enough fluids, and treat pain and fever with common medicines. If symptoms worsen, you should seek medical care and advice.
How bad is the Zika virus?
Four out of five people who contract the Zika virus have no symptoms.
About one in five cases results in a minor illness known as Zika fever, which causes symptoms such as a low fever, rash, joint pain, pink eye and headaches.
The Zika virus infection is causing alarm that it may be linked with a few thousand cases of newborn microcephaly by mother-to-child transmission.
I’m pregnant. Should I travel?
First, consult with your physician. Second, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says this:
Pregnant women in any trimester should consider postponing travel to the areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing. Pregnant women who do travel to one of these areas should talk to their doctor or other healthcare provider first and strictly follow steps to avoid mosquito bites during the trip.
How do people catch Zika virus?
People catch Zika by being bitten by an infected Aedes mosquito – the same type of mosquito that spreads dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever.
What about in the US?
According to the top heath official at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a major outbreak of Zika virus in the US is unlikely.
FAQs compiled from information provided by the World Health Organization, the CDC & the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).