The world cringed at the thought of contracting the H1N1 virus in 2009. Then in 2012, the West Nile virus seemed to be the gray cloud looming over our heads. Two years later, Ebola took the world by storm.
And today, the most frightening prospect is an infection with the Zika virus (ZIKV).
In May 2015, the ZIKV – previously an arbovirus contained in the regions of Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands – was confirmed to have infected the first individual in Brazil. Most commonly transmitted through the bite of an Aedes aegypti
mosquito (which has previously transmitted dengue and chikungunya viruses), ZIKV is behind the recent outbreaks in South and Central American countries, as well as in Mexico. One ZIKV case in Brazil was confirmed to be transmitted through blood transfusion.
Several Americans returning from travels to infected areas have also been diagnosed with ZIKV, and the first sexually transmitted case
was confirmed in Texas on February 2, 2016. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued Level 2 travel alerts for two dozen countries and regions
Although 80% of individuals infected with ZIKV show no symptoms, some exhibit mild fever, joint pain, rash, and conjunctivitis (red eyes) that can last between two days and a week. There have been no reported deaths linked to ZIKV thus far.
Officials are especially concerned about pregnant women contracting ZIKV. A rise in microcephaly (a congenital condition associated with incomplete brain development) in Brazil is thought to be caused by the ZIKV outbreak, and recently, a child in Hawaii whose mother is infected, was born with the condition. Although there are strong suspicions, further research needs to be conducted before a confirmed connection can be drawn between the virus and microcephaly. In the meantime, major health organizations such as CDC are recommending that pregnant women should avoid traveling
to regions where the virus has been detected.
Patients suspected of infection are tested for ZIKV through Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) methods. PCR methods are DNA amplification methods in which a small amount of DNA from a patient is copied and amplified after several cycles of reactions yielding a higher amount of DNA strands to be further analyzed. After the strands have been amplified, they are sequenced to inform researchers of the base composition of the DNA. Once this information is obtained it is compared against several databases to check if potential known viral DNA is present in the patient. It is pertinent that patients are tested within the first week of sickness.
Although there are no vaccines or specific antiviral treatments available for ZIKV, Sanofi Pasteur recently announced
the launch of a vaccine development effort. Until a preventive vaccine becomes a reality, the public is advised to use insect repellant as well as mosquito nets and window and door screens. It is also recommended that any container which can hold water be covered at all times so as to prevent mosquitoes from laying eggs within them.
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