Zika Virus Epidemic: From Mosquito Bite to an STD

By Shanda Glover

A mosquito on a finger.
Zika virus is transmitted to people primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. They live indoors and outdoors near people.

Last week, health officials from Dallas County, Texas, announced a confirmed case of the Zika virus, a disease transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes. This case involves a patient who had traveled from Venezuela to the United States and later passed on the virus to his wife.  The Center of Disease Control (CDC) confirmed this is the first known case of the virus being acquired in the continental United States. It is also the first confirmed case through sexual transmission.

Currently, there is no vaccine or specific medicine to treat Zika infections. The CDC states that getting plenty of rest, drinking plenty of water, and taking acetaminophen to relieve pain can help those who are infected. Common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, conjunctivitis, and intense headaches. These symptoms are usually mild lasting up to a week. About 80 percent of people infected with the Zika virus don’t show symptoms at all.  Usually people don’t get sick and rarely die. However, an increasing number of children born to mothers experiencing Zika symptoms have had birth defects. Research on the virus has been extremely limited. With the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring Zika a public health emergency, attention on Zika science and research funding have increased, and better diagnostics tests have been created to detect the virus.

Although the recent case is causing nationwide concern, the Zika virus has been an international concern long before now. The virus was first discovered in 1947, in the tropical Zika Forest in Uganda. The Zika virus spread quietly through Africa and Asia hitting major countries like Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Egypt, Vietnam, India, and Thailand. However, many of these cases went undocumented or written off as different diseases. Then, in April 2007, there was a major outbreak in Yap Island, an island in the Pacific Ocean. There was an estimated 5,005 Zika-related cases out of Yap Island’s 7,391 residents due to mosquito transmission. Outbreaks spread to other Pacific Islands: Easter Island, New Caledonia, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. In the current outbreak, the rough estimate of cases in Brazil is 500,000 to 1.5 million. A map of all the countries affected by ZikaAccording to NPR, the virus has been transmitted to over 25 countries.

The CDC has issued guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus through sexual transmission or through the spread of mosquito bites. Some of these tips include wearing long-sleeve shirts and long pants while travelling outside the country, sleeping under a mosquito bed net, using insect repellant, and trying not to engage in any sexual activity while travelling overseas.

Researchers are studying the Zika virus’s methods of transmission, specifically seeing if it can be spread through saliva or urine. As of now, it is still unknown if the virus is contagious through these routes, but some experts have suggested that pregnant women in affected regions avoid kissing people other than their partners. In at least five of the affected countries, women have been advised to avoid getting pregnant, with Colombia telling women to delay pregnancy for six to eight months, and El Salvador, suggesting women avoid getting pregnant for at least two years. The CDC warns that “Until we know more, if your male sexual partner has traveled to or lives in an area with active Zika virus transmission, you should abstain from sex or use condoms the right way every time you have vaginal, anal, and oral sex for the duration of the pregnancy.” This is most important in the first trimester, because the first trimester is more vulnerable to birth defects or can lead to complications during the second or third trimester.

Health officials in many countries have given their female populations two common warnings: Do not have sex. Do not get pregnant. The CDC and other disease experts have stated that avoiding pregnancy until the creation of a vaccine will be an effective way of cutting the spread of Zika and Zika-caused birth defects. These warnings have been greeted with a mixture of shock and backlash. “The way these governments are handling the virus is foolish, highly unrealistic, and insensitive to women,” says Carmen Barroso, the regional director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation in the Western Hemisphere. ” What the government should be doing, besides combating the virus, of course, is they should make it easier for women to avoid pregnancies they don’t want.” Currently, more than 3,100 pregnant women in Colombia are infected with Zika, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said Saturday. UN officials have urged Zika infected countries to lift restrictive bans on abortion and make contraceptives readily available. The UN’s announcement comes a day after a judge in Brazil went against the country’s mainstream abortion policy by announcing he’ll allow women to end a pregnancy in cases of microcephaly.

A diagram comparing a child with microcephaly to a child who does not have it.
Microcephaly is a neurological condition in which an infant’s head is significantly small.

According to researchers in the state of Pernambuco in Brazil, there is new evidence linking microcephaly, a birth defect marked by an abnormally small head size that can result in developmental problems, and the Zika virus. Researchers tested the spinal fluid of 12 babies with microcephaly, all of whom were born to mothers with symptoms of Zika early in their pregnancies. In all 12 cases, the researchers found evidence of Zika. Although, this study showed interesting and promising results, researchers still want to be cautious about stating that there is a definitive link, but it is a step in the right direction.

Hopefully, with better ways of testing and a greater awareness of the virus, we will stop Zika’s history from continuing into our future.

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