It’s December break, school is out, and you’re about to escape the cold. Whether you are going to South Florida, Cancún, the Bahamas, or Aruba, you will be greeted by something other than warm weather and beaches: the Zika virus.
Over the past year, the Zika virus has gone from being a nearly unknown virus in the United States, to a frequent topic of discussion among Americans. In 2015, the first case of Zika was reported in Brazil, and it wasn’t soon after that it exploded into an epidemic by January of 2016. Scientists that study the Zika virus believe that in 2014, an infected Polynesian World Cup spectator was bitten by a mosquito, which led to the spread of the virus throughout Brazil. So far, it has been proven that Zika can be transmitted sexually, by blood transfusion, and by mosquitoes. Although it is sparsely documented, it is possible that Zika can also be transmitted through an exchange of bodily fluids from people, even if they do not show symptoms.
Zika quickly catapulted into international frenzy when an alarmingly high number of newborn babies in Brazil were found to suffer from microcephaly, a condition where babies are born with abnormally small heads. According to the New York Times, the condition is incurable and can lead to seizures, delayed motor functions, impaired cognitive development, speech problems, and dwarfism. A clear relationship has been proven between infection of pregnant women with Zika and microcephaly presenting in their babies. Dr. Richard Nemiroff, a physician and Clinical Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Pennsylvania, says that if a mother has the Zika virus while pregnant, there is about a 10% chance that the baby will be born with microcephaly.
However, Zika does not impact only pregnant or soon-to- be-pregnant women. According to SpringerLink, although 80% of people infected with Zika do not show symptoms of the disease, some exhibit minor symptoms such as pink eye, rash, arthritis, and joint pain. Others exhibit more serious symptoms including Guillain-Barré syndrome, a type of paralysis to which older adults are especially vulnerable. Usually, the paralysis is temporary but sometimes it can be permanent. Nemiroff stated that he would not travel to Miami, where the transmission of Zika is predominantly occurring in the United States of America, due to the risk of Guillain-Barré syndrome. In Brazil, there have been recent cases of meningoencephalitis, a dangerous inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. More recently, evidence suggests a possible link between Zika and early-onset dementia. Dr. Jennifer L. Kaufman, an award-winning California pediatrician, says that although in the early stages of research, this link first surfaced when scientists used mice to discover that Zika may affect memory and learning areas in the brain.
Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for Zika, and experts in epidemiology say that it may take as long as a decade for scientists to develop a vaccine to fight Zika. However, there are steps that everyone can take to reduce the risk of infection. According to SpringerLink, the best ways to prevent mosquito bites are using insect repellent with DEET, covering exposed skin, and remaining in screened-in areas. Currently, the CDC recommends that women who have been infected with Zika or who have travelled to areas where Zika is transmitted should wait eight weeks before attempting to get pregnant. The CDC also recommends that males wait six months before having unprotected sex after infection or traveling to an area with Zika.
Some communities are trying innovative techniques to combat Zika. In the community of Key Haven in the Florida Keys, a British company called Oxitec is planning to release genetically modified male mosquitoes that carry synthetic DNA. When they mate with female mosquitoes, their offspring have too much protein, causing them to die. According to the New York Times, the genetically modified mosquitoes decreased the mosquito population by over 90% in some Brazilian trials. While the trials may have been a success in Brazil, Key Haven residents are wary of risks that using genetically modified mosquitos may pose on nature.
According to Dr. Kaufman, many scientists theorize that being infected with Zika might result in lifetime immunity, similar to the immunity gained after contracting the Chicken Pox. Therefore, over time, there will be fewer and fewer people left for the virus to infect, which would eventually diminish, if not end, the Zika epidemic. However, she warns, if this theory is not true, the epidemic could continue for much longer than originally expected.
Currently, it is thought that teenagers are not at a higher risk from Zika than other demographic groups. Dr. Kaufman believes it is truly safe for teens to travel to Zika infected areas, partly because the virus itself tends to be mild for most infected people. However, Kaufman admits that she, among other scientists, are unsure of the long-term affects on infected humans regarding the Zika virus. To find out where Zika is being actively transmitted and to learn more about the Zika virus, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website at cdc.gov.