A devastating outbreak of a tropical disease known as the Zika virus has been plaguing regions of Latin America, leaving a trail of horrendous birth defects in its wake.
Zika, which was previously believed to be mild, now has the attention of the World Health Organization after rapidly spreading through Brazil and eight other surrounding countries. Microcephaly, an untreatable condition which inhibits the development of an unborn infant’s brain and head, has been one of the major impacts to the infected.
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, some of the affected children will only experience mild disability, but most will be at high risk of developmental disabilities such as Down’s syndrome. The impacts on the children who experience microcephaly are similar in nature to the impacts a child might experience if the mother heavily used drugs or alcohol during pregnancy.
In Brazil alone, over 1,200 babies that were born with microcephaly were linked to Zika. In Brazil’s worst hit state of Pernambuco, 646 instances of the defect were recorded, up from a mere 12 last year.
Zika is known to be carried and transmitted by Aedes mosquitos, the same type of mosquito that transmits dengue and chikungunya. 25 percent of the infected don’t even show symptoms, and those that do generally only see mild symptoms such as rash, headaches, bone pains and fever. After a week, the symptoms typically go away.
Because of its subtle nature, people rarely go to the doctor after contracting the virus, and a majority of the cases go unnoticed as a result. But even when it is noticed, Doctors generally don’t consider Zika a huge threat because it’s not known to lead to death.
Health officials clearly recognize a concern over the spread of Zika, especially after the massive amount of birth defects in Brazil linked to the illness. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) issued an alert about the Zika threat, warning countries in and around Brazil to be prepared for the disease, with particular attention placed toward newborns.
Because Brazil is entering its meteorological summer, the spread of the virus in the region is expected to only get worse.
According to The Guardian, many Brazilian citizens are panicking, and local news outlets are urging women to abstain from pregnancy until more information about Zika becomes available. Dr. Marcos Espinal, the director of communicable diseases at PAHO, said that not enough evidence exists right now to take the drastic measure of avoiding pregnancy, and that pregnant women should simply stay in touch with their doctor more during their pregnancy.
Zika originated in the forests of Uganada, and has historically spread through tropical regions across the globe. In the current Latin American outbreak, aside from Brazil, cases have been reported in Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Paraguay, Venezuela, and most recently, Panama.