The Zika Virus and its Consequences: Latin America on Alert

By Tatiana Rodriguez

nuevo_virus_zikaHAVANA TIMES — The Zika virus has been raising serious concerns in several Latin American countries over the past few months, not only due to its easy transmission but also because of the irreversible damage it can cause adults and babies whose mothers become infected, dpa news reported.

Below are a series of questions and answers that will help readers understand the workings of the virus better.

   What is the Zika virus and how is it contracted?

The virus was first discovered in Uganda’s Zika forest in 1947, during an experiment involving monkeys aimed at finding a means to control yellow fever in this African region.

It is chiefly transmitted by bites from Aedes aegupti mosquitos, the same species that carries the four types of dengue and chikungunya. These are found mostly in areas with tropical and sub-tropical climates.

   Is the virus transmitted exclusively by mosquitoes?

No. It is important to bear in mind that an infected person can transmit the virus to others through sexual contact, and that mothers can pass it on to their fetuses via the placenta and blood.

   Which are the most severely affected countries?

In 2015, the World Health Organization confirmed that the most severely affected countries in Latin America were Brazil, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Paraguay, Suriname and Venezuela.

   How does the mosquito breed and what is the incubation period of the virus?

The carrier mosquito breeds in clean, stagnant water, such as found in pools that gather in tires, flower pots or any open container. Following the bite, the virus has an incubation period that oscillated between three and twelve days. Some cases are devoid of symptoms.

   What are the virus’ symptoms?

The virus may cause fever, headaches, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, conjunctivitis, swelling of the hand and feet and skin rashes. Less frequently, it can cause vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain and lack of appetite.

   How is the disease treated?

Though symptoms generally disappear spontaneously after a week, it is advisable to drink plenty of fluids, avoid contact with others to prevent contagion, take medication to control fevers and pain and consume antihistamines to alleviate rashes.

The use of anti-inflammatories, such as aspirin, is not recommended.

   How is the virus related to conditions such as microcephaly and Guillain Barre Syndrome?

At the close of last year, the Brazilian Ministry of Health confirmed a relationship between the virus and microcephaly, a neurological condition that causes babies to be born with smaller cranial circumferences than normal (32 centimeters or less) and with brain development problems.

El Salvador and the United States have also reported these malformations at birth, though in smaller numbers.

In Colombia, where as many as 600,000 Zika cases are expected, authorities issued an alert related to the appearance of Guillain Barre Syndrome, a serious condition that arises when the body’s immune system attacks part of the nervous system by mistake, leading to muscle weakness and paralysis, in 12 mothers who were diagnosed with Zika while pregnant.

   What should women who are pregnant or wish to become pregnant do?

In Brazil, health authorities have recommended that pregnant women avoid insect bites by avoiding places (and times of day) where there are mosquitos, wearing clothing that covers most of their bodies and using insect repellant.

The US Center for Disease Control also asked pregnant women not to travel to 14 countries in Latin America, including Puerto Rico, Brazil and Colombia, a country where the government recently advised women to avoid pregnancies until mid-year to prevent malformations.

   How is the virus transmitted to unborn children?

An unpublished research paper by the Carlos Chagas Institute (ICC) in Brazil revealed that the virus passes through the placenta, confirming that this virus can be transmitted through intra-uterine channels.

Have any deaths by the virus been reported?

The deaths of five babies with microcephaly caused by the Zika virus have been confirmed in Brazil. An additional 44 deaths of babies are being investigated on suspicion of being linked to the virus. The death of a man and a 16-year-old teenager have also been confirmed.

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