Zika Virus: Global Emergency?

By: Karina Velez

Zika virus is a mosquito-borne disease currently spreading throughout Central and South America. Since March 2014, 14 countries and territories of the Americas reported cases of Zika infection. People with Zika infection usually suffer from fever, skin rash, muscle and joint pain, malaise, headache, and conjunctivitis. These symptoms usually last less than one week and are mild. Four out of five people with Zika virus have no symptoms, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Most cases of Zika infection require no specific treatment, but a growing concern is the effect of Zika virus on pregnant women and their newborn babies. In November 2015, the Ministry of Health of Brazil noted a marked increase in microcephaly (in which the head circumference of newborns is smaller than expected) that coincided with Zika virus circulation in the country. Zika virus is affecting multiple counties in Latin America. The number of Zika cases among travelers visiting or returning to the United States will likely increase and the virus is expected to spread to North America. Currently, affected regions are advising women to avoid getting pregnant due to the link to birth defects. Additionally, pregnant women are being advised not to travel to affected areas. Experts say that Zika may rise to the level of a global threat because there is no vaccine or treatment available.

Preventative measures that people in affected areas can take include avoiding mosquito bites by using Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellant (which are all evaluated for effectiveness); wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants; staying in places with air conditioning or that use window and door screens to keep mosquitoes outside; and sleeping under a mosquito bed net. In the upcoming weeks, WHO and other organizations will monitor the development of the virus. WHO is concerned that this year’s El Nino could cause the virus to spread further through an increase in mosquito populations. El Nino typically brings warmer temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns, creating ideal breeding conditions for mosquito populations to thrive in. Reduction of standing water is necessary to interrupt the mosquito breeding patterns.

WHO could declare a global emergency when it meets on Monday, Feb 1st 2016. If WHO makes such a declaration, it will essentially be issuing a “a global Amber Alert for public health,” as stated by Susan Kim, a deputy director of Georgetown University’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law in Washington. This declaration will shine a light on the virus and generate a worldwide response. This is a sensitive matter for WHO because it has only issued global emergencies during three other health endemics: the H1N1 swine flu in 2009, the Ebola outbreak in 2014, and the reappearance of polio in Syria and other countries in 2014. WHO officials want to make sure that nations don’t take inappropriate steps to limit travel or trade because of the virus, said Bruce Aylward, assistant director-general of the WHO. Nonetheless, a strong response erring on the side of precaution is necessary because this virus is an inchoate infection and we have very little knowledge about it. Individuals are being exposed to it and they have no immunity to the infection and therefore more unknown affects and symptoms may arise and cause a serious pandemic.

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