Zika Virus Expected to Spread Through the Americas
The World Health Organization warned Monday of the spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus through the Americas, as scientists rush to better understand the disease’s suspected links to a surge in fetal deformities in Brazil and governments issue travel warnings to pregnant women.
Brazilian health officials believe Zika has caused a spike in the number of babies born with microcephaly, a condition in which a baby’s brain and head don’t develop to a healthy size, leading to brain damage. Nearly 4,000 cases of microcephaly have been tracked since the outbreak began—more than 30 times the number in a typical year, Reuters reported. The disease was first reported in Brazil in May 2015.
Canada and Chile are the only two countries the virus isn’t expected to reach, because the Aedes mosquitoes—the main means of transmission—aren’t there yet, WHO officials said. In the U.S., pregnant women have been warned to avoid travel south of the Mexican border or in the Caribbean.
There have also been calls to delay pregnancy in countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, and Jamaica—with officials in El Salvador going so far as to say women should wait until 2018. Notably, El Salvador has what has been called the world’s strictest antiabortion law, and advocates such as Amnesty International have called on the country to improve access to contraception.
The symptoms of the illness can be so mild as to be undetectable and typically include up to a week of fever, skin rash, muscle and joint pain, and malaise.
Zika was first discovered in Uganda in 1947 and has no cure or preventive vaccine, which isn’t an uncommon problem for tropical diseases. Drug maker GlaxoSmithKline told Reuters on Monday that it is studying whether its vaccine technology can help curb the spread of Zika, and researchers at the Butantan Institute in São Paulo say they are pushing to create a vaccine. But all parties warn that such development could take years.
As University of Oxford global health professor Trudie Lang told Reuters, “We’ve got no drugs, and we’ve got no vaccines. It’s a case of déjà vu because that’s exactly what we were saying with Ebola.”