Zika Virus

By Nicole Strossman, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, ’17

Author’s Note:

“I chose to write about this topic in an effort to gain a better understanding of Zika virus. While the topic is frequently in the news, the specifics of the virus are not always discussed in depth. As ongoing research is demonstrating the virus’ possible links to human health disorders, it is important for the general public to be informed about the facts of the virus, in an effort to minimize its spread.”

Recently in the U.S. and across the world, there has been growing concern regarding Zika virus, a pathogen primarily transmitted by the Aedes species of mosquito (CDC). Although infection with the Zika virus is generally only accompanied by mild symptoms, it has also been linked to microcephaly, a condition in which infants are born with abnormally small heads (Wilson, Schlagenhauf 1). As the number of people affected by Zika increases, further research is underway to look into Zika’s role in other neurological disorders in an effort to discover other effects and conditions the virus might be associated with. Recently, there has been scientific consensus that Zika can cause Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that often begins with tingling and muscle weakness, and sometimes leads to paralysis (WHO). These new discoveries, in addition to the increased number of reported cases of the virus and new information regarding transmission, have led to greater worldwide interest in the virus.

Zika virus was first identified in 1947 in Uganda in the rhesus monkey, and has since been reported in many countries in Africa and Asia (Wilson, Schlagenhauf 1). More recently, it has been found in North, South, and Central America, in addition to many of the Pacific Islands (CDC). Within the past year, the virus received increased scrutiny, due to the discovery of its link to microcephaly. This responsibility for birth defects caused many people to regard the virus as being more severe than initially thought, as it can potentially lead to lifelong conditions for infants with mothers who are infected.  Additionally, the 2016 Olympic Games held in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil further raised worldwide concern and greater recognition of the virus, as the virus has been reported in over 19 states in the country since its first local transmission in April of 2015 (Wilson, Schlagenhauf 1-2). Together, both the link to microcephaly and increased number of places reporting local Zika transmission led to increased media coverage of Zika, sounding an alert and encouraging prevention to people planning to travel to countries experiencing outbreaks. It appears that in the case of the Olympics, these attempts of prevention were successful, as the World Health Organization reports that there were no cases of Zika infections resulting from the Olympics (Tavernise). More recently, the U.S. also has experienced a Zika outbreak, with 43 locally acquired cases of the virus, all in Florida, and 3,314 travel-associated cases; and these numbers are rapidly growing (CDC). Zika has been declared a “global public health emergency” by the World Health Organization (BBC).

Symptoms associated with the virus are generally mild and often not detectable. Common symptoms include fever, rash, aches, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (an infection of the eye), and generally go away within a week (CDC). Less commonly, an infected individual may experience muscle pain and headaches (CDC). Due to the lack of severity of these symptoms, people may become infected and not realize it. While the symptoms are generally mild, it is still important for individuals to get tested for Zika, as more serious and lasting effects are possible. Its link to microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome are of particular importance, and there is currently further research being conducted to explore possible links to other neurological disorders (WHO).  This is especially pertinent to pregnant women, or women planning on getting pregnant, as many cases of microcephaly in infants born to women affected with Zika virus have been documented (CDC). Microcephaly results in a smaller head and brain size and can lead to infants having a variety of other medical problems, such as dwarfism, seizures, and facial and joint deformities (Wilson, Schlagenhauf 2). Additionally, several children also experienced learning disabilities, impaired motor function, struggles with balance and movement, and delays in speech (Boston Children’s Hospital).

In addition to the increased number in identified viral infections and the virus’ potential to cause birth defects, recent discoveries in its modes of transmission are also demonstrating the greater threat the virus may pose. While it was initially thought that this virus was only transmitted to humans from mosquitoes, new evidence suggests that human to human transmission can also occur. The ability of Zika to be transmitted through sexual intercourse increases public concern about the virus due to the effects that the virus can have on fetuses, and also because of the realization that people can contract the virus without ever coming into contact with a mosquito carrying the virus (WHO).

Currently, there is no vaccine or treatment available for Zika virus infection. Thus, it is very important for people, especially pregnant women, to take preventative measures against becoming infected. The use of insect repellants and clothing that limits exposure of body parts can be helpful in preventing mosquito bites. Additionally, it is very important for people to be aware of the areas that this virus is endemic and to either limit traveling to or take additional precautions when going to these areas. Finally, it is also imperative for people to take precautions regarding the sexual transmission of the disease, either by using condoms or by practicing abstinence.  

Overall, it is very important for the general public to have full knowledge and awareness about this virus, in order to minimize its spread.  While the extent of the dangers attributable to this virus may not yet be fully understood, any instance of an emerging pathogen that threatens human health requires ongoing scrutiny.

Works Cited:

MacMath, Jillian. “Zika in the US: Officials Announce over a Dozen New Locally Acquired Cases of Virus in Florida.” AccuWeather. N.p., 5 Aug. 2016. Web. 22 Sept. 2016. < <http://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/zika-in-the-us-department-of-health-10-new-locally-acquired-cases-in-florida/59152463>

Tavernise, Sabrina. “No Zika Cases Reported During Rio Olympics, W.H.O. Says.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 02 Sept. 2016. Web. 25 Sept. 2016. <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/03/health/zika-rio-olympics.html>.

Wilson ME, Schlagenhauf P, Aedes and the Triple Threat of DENV, CHIKV, ZIKV – Arboviral Risks and Prevention at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease (2016), doi: 10.1016/j.tmaid.2016.01.010.

2013, Boston Children’s Hospital. “Microcephaly Symptoms & Causes.”  Boston Children’s Hospital. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.childrenshospital.org/conditions-and-treatments/conditions/microcephaly/symptoms-and-causes>.

News, BBC. “Zika Outbreak: What You Need to Know.” BBC News. N.p., 31 Aug. 2016. Web. 26 Sept. 2016. < http://www.bbc.com/news/health-35370848>

“Zika Virus.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 22 Sept. 2016. Web. 22 Sept. 2016. < https://www.cdc.gov/zika/index.html>

“Zika Virus.” World Health Organization. World Health Organization, 6 Sept. 2016. Web. 22 Sept. 2016. < http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/zika/en/>