Zika: A Public Health Emergency

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The World Health Organization has declared the Zika virus an international public health emergency, prompted by growing concern that it could cause birth defects. As many as four million people could be infected by the end of the year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials have urged pregnant women against travel to the countries which mostly include the Caribbean and Latin America were the outbreak of infection has been at alarming rate.

The infection appears to be linked to the development of unusually small heads and brain damage in newborns. The Zika virus is a mosquito-transmitted infection related to dengue, yellow fever and West Nile virus. Although it was discovered in the Zika forest in Uganda in 1947 and is common in Africa and Asia, it did not begin spreading widely in the Western Hemisphere until last May, when an outbreak occurred in Brazil. Millions of people in tropical regions of the Americas may now have been infected. Scientific concern is focused on women who become infected while pregnant and those who develop a temporary form of paralysis after exposure to the Zika virus. 

India needs to be particularly conscious about the spread of the disease since the mosquito that carries the virus actually is present in the country. The Aedes Aegypti mosquito whose bite transmits the disease is the same as the one that transmits dengue and chikungunya, which is widely prevalent in India. 

Zika is spread by mosquitoes of the Aedes genus, which can breed in a pool of water as small as a bottle cap and usually bite during the day. The aggressive yellow fever mosquito, Aedes aegypti, has spread most Zika cases, the mosquito is common in hot weather. Experts believe that the vast majority of all Zika infections are transmitted by mosquitoes, not sex. The C.D.C. does not recommend a particular antiviral medication for people infected with the Zika virus. The symptoms are mild, when they appear at all and usually require only rest, nourishment and other supportive care. There is no vaccine against the Zika virus. Efforts to make one have just begun, and creating and testing a vaccine normally takes years and costs hundreds of millions of dollars. 

Because it is impossible to completely prevent mosquito bites, the C.D.C. has advised pregnant women to avoid going to regions where Zika is being transmitted, and has advised women thinking of becoming pregnant to consult doctors before going. Travelers to these countries are advised to avoid or minimize mosquito bites by staying in screened or air-conditioned rooms or sleeping under mosquito nets, wearing insect repellent at all times and wearing long pants, long sleeves, shoes and hats. 

 

Author is a Research Scholar at the University of Hyderabad. He can be reached at: [email protected]

 

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