The War on Zika

Chelsea Kwong, senior

Recently, the CDC issued travel advisories for several regions affected by the spreading Zika virus. The increasing concern about this virus has even impacted Duquesne nursing students, as the annual spring break trip to Nicaragua led by Duquesne faculty has been cancelled. As international health authorities and impacted countries work to minimize the impact of this deadly illness, little information about its effects are actually known. The virus shows no signs of stopping at this time, and is expected to result in approximately 3-4 million cases within the next year1.

According to the World Health Organization, Zika is “an emerging mosquito-borne Flavivirus related to dengue, yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis, and West Nile viruses, and is transmitted by Aedes spp. Mosquitoes” (2015).  Symptoms include fever, myalgia, conjunctivitis, and other unpleasant conditions2. However, its most striking effects have been neurological and autoimmune in nature. The virus has been linked to an increased incidence of conditions including Guillain-Barre syndrome, thrombocytopenic purpura, leucopenia, and meningoencephalitis1.

Its most devastating effects, however, have been observed in newborns whose mothers contracted the virus during pregnancy. Specifically in Brazil, an alarming amount of cases of microcephaly (a condition in which the infant’s head appears shrunken. The smaller head capacity affects the brain, which cannot properly develop as a result of the condition) have arisen within the past year. Much of the travel advisories and warnings have been targeted toward pregnant women, whose fetuses are at risk for birth defects2.

The virus was first discovered in Uganda in 1947, but has not been of concern to humans until 2007, when the virus surfaced in Micronesia. Several years later, in May of 2015, the World Health Organization reported occurrence in the Americas, particularly in Brazil. It is said that Brazil had upwards of 1.3 million occurrences of Zika in 2015. The virus has since spread to several countries in South and Central America, even reaching Puerto Rico.3

Attention has been directed toward Brazil, a country that has been most impacted by the virus, as it is to host the Olympic Games this summer in Rio de Janiero. Already suffering political and financial hardships, the government remains optimistic about the situation, saying that “Zika will pose no risk to Olympic visitors unless they’re pregnant”, and that because the games are occurring during Brazil’s winter, the mosquitoes should not be as active. Despite the outward optimism, athletes and prospective spectators of the international event have raised concerns, and airlines have begun to give refunds to those canceling trips to Zika affected areas, particularly Brazil.4

The U.S. Department of Health states that “although local transmission of Zika virus has not been documented in the continental United States, Zika virus infections have been reported in returning travelers”. Currently, there are no publically available tests for the disease. People within the affected regions observe for onset of symptoms such as the dengue infection, fever, conjunctivitis, etc. There is also no vaccine for the disease, and it has become especially important for those inhabiting these regions (or those who must travel to these regions) to engage in standard mosquito precautions. It is critical that pregnant women avoid travel to these areas, and should be assessed by a doctor immediately if exhibiting the various symptoms of the disease within two weeks of travel.3 Though the United States is at low risk for a widespread outbreak of Zika, it is important to be aware of the condition and its devastating effects.

1Trinfol, M. & Udani, S. (2016). Concern over Zika virus grips the world. The Lancet. doi. 10.1016/S0140-6736(16)00257-9

2World Health Organization. Zika virus outbreaks in the Americas. Weekly Epidemiological Record, 45(90), 609-616. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/wer

3Hennessey, M., Fischer, M., & Staples, J.E. (2016). Zika virus spreads to new areas- Region of the Americas, May 2015-January 2016. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 65(3), 55-57.

4Walsh, B., Sifferlin, A., Worland, J. & Sandy, M. (2016). Zika’s toll. Time, 187(5), 42-47.

 

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