The Zika virus may seem like a 21st-century viral disease plague but that is far from the case. The virus was discovered in 1947, in Uganda in the Zika forest, which is where the disease gets its name. It was not until 2015 when the Zika Virus was linked to severe birth defects like microcephaly if infected during pregnancy. Microcephaly affects the brain development of the fetus, resulting in the baby being born with an abnormally small head and congenital conditions that are associated with incomplete brain development. In most cases, the children affected by the Zika virus die within the first year of life. Previously, the virus presented itself as flu-like symptoms and most people did not realize they were infected. The mysterious evolution of the Zika virus is making things elusive in finding solutions for the disease.
Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) issued an alert regarding the first confirmed Zika virus infection in Brazil, in May 2015. By Feb. 1, 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Zika virus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).
The history of the virus is as mysterious of its evolution. The Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) owns the Zika Forest, where the disease was discovered. In 1947, researchers were looking for Yellow Fever. The scientists would put caged monkeys on platforms throughout the forest to collect blood samples for research on Yellow Fever. Then, one day as researchers were analyzing the blood of a captive rhesus monkey, something that was not Yellow Fever was found. That virus that was found became known as the Zika virus. No one knows where the virus came from; it simply appeared one day. The virus had existed for years, throughout Africa and Asia; it was only identified in April 1947.
The virus is spread primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. The mosquitos are most commonly found in tropical areas. The Aedes mosquito cannot fly more than approximately 1,300 feet according to WHO. The virus spreads in a variety of ways, via its human host. While symptoms may never occur, the host can infect other mosquitos when bitten, spreading the disease when that mosquito bites someone else. The Zika virus is also transmittable through sexual intercourse and blood transfusions. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) released data stating that the virus remained in semen longer than it stayed in the blood stream.
The first outbreak of the Zika virus was also a mystery in 2007 when the disease spread on Yap Island in Micronesia, in the Pacific Ocean. The 2007 outbreak, was the first instance of the virus being outside of its area of origin. Despite the mysterious outbreak on the small island, the lack of serious illness did not prompt much response to make a solution or a vaccine to address the disease. The elusive nature of the virus had remained unknown until 2015 when the Zika virus seemingly evolved as mysteriously has it was discovered.
In 2016, Brazil began releasing information that the Zika virus was responsible for deadly birth defects when passed from mother to child during pregnancy, which brought the disease to international notoriety. While the virus is confirmed to cause microcephaly, not every pregnant woman infected with the virus is guaranteed to have a child with birth defects. There have been 41 confirmed cases of Zika virus-related microcephaly. There are another 421 confirmed cases of microcephaly, those causes have yet to be confirmed by Brazil’s Health Ministry. This mysterious evolution of the virus has made solutions elusive for health officials.
The strain of the Zika virus that has been linked to the birth defects that have been reported in Brazil originated in Southeast Asia, according to the head of UVRI’s arbovirology department, Julius Lutwama. Genetic analysis of the more deadly strain of the virus has revealed that the disease may have been prevalent since 2013, in Brazil. Why the outbreak began in 2015, is a mystery. Reports that genetically modified mosquitos or larvicides were responsible for the Zika virus’s deadly evolution began to spread after its rediscovery in Brazil. However, WHO and the U.S. National Institute of Health have dispelled these reports as not factually based.
There are no treatments or vaccines for the Zika virus. Research into the virus just began in 2016, as it has turned into a more widespread deadly disease. As the risk of the disease spreads to other countries, the only recourse is prevention. WHO has advised the public to utilize repellants and to cover exposed skin to avoid mosquito bites. Women are encouraged not to become pregnant if they have any possible exposure to the Zika virus. The mystery behind the current strain of the Zika virus remains elusive to researchers, as funding grows to discover effective solutions to eradicate the disease.
By Gichele Cocrelle
Edited by Jeanette Smith
Time: 10 Zika Facts you need to know
QZ.com: Even in the place where Zika virus was first discovered its true origin is a mystery
CDC.GOV: Zika Virus
Who.int: Dispelling rumours around Zika and complications
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