The World Health Organization said on September 2, 2016, that the growing spread of Zika around the world and basic gaps in knowledge about the virus’s devastating complications in babies continue to make Zika a global health emergency.
According to a Washington Post report, after convening its expert committee this week, the UN health experts said that more research needs to be focused on what other factors besides the mosquito-borne virus could be causing severe birth defects, such as microcephaly.
The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has confirmed Zika can spread through sex, usually after a person traveled to an area where Zika has broken out, got the virus, and gave the virus to a sex partner who did not travel. Infected women and men can both pass the virus to sex partners – even if they haven’t shown symptoms of infection.
The disease can cause fever, rash, joint pain, and redness in the whites of the eye. But most people won’t know they have it.
Zika causes microcephaly in babies born to infected pregnant women, the CDC confirmed earlier this year. Microcephaly stunts a baby’s head growth, causing devastating, sometimes fatal brain damage, and it can result in miscarriage or stillbirth.
The virus has caused panic in Brazil since it first appeared there in May. More than 1,700 babies in Brazil have been born with microcephaly or other birth defects linked to Zika. Brazil and several other nations have advised women to postpone pregnancy.
Although there are many causes of microcephaly in babies, including infections during pregnancy, genetic problems, and exposure to toxic substances during pregnancy, the CDC says research has provided enough evidence to show that Zika is among those causes. Also, research has suggested that infection during the earliest stages of pregnancy, when a baby’s organs are still forming, seems to be linked to the worst outcomes.
As of August 18, the CDC had confirmed Zika infections in more than 580 pregnant women in the U.S. and more than 800 women in U.S. territories. Sixteen U.S. babies have been born with Zika-linked birth defects, and five pregnancy losses have been linked to the virus.
The number of Zika cases in Singapore exceeded 200. The statement by the National Environment Agency said that community outreach activities are being conducted over these two weekends to urge all residents to join in the collective efforts in the fight against the mosquito-borne virus.
According to scientists writing in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, more than two billion people could be at risk from Zika virus outbreaks in parts of Africa and Asia. The researchers said that populations in India, Indonesia and Nigeria are some of the most vulnerable to transmission. They used data on air traveller numbers to help model their predictions. However, the scientists acknowledge that immunity to the virus could already exist in some areas and could reduce the risk.
One of the most fundamental questions in this current epidemic is why countries such as Brazil, the epicenter of the current epidemic, have reported nearly 2,000 cases of microcephaly and other brain abnormalities, while countries such as Colombia, where more than 18,000 pregnant women have been infected since last fall, have reported fewer than three dozen cases.
Scientists need to examine possible factors that could affect Zika’s damage, including genetic factors, environmental contaminants, and other co-infections, said David Heymann, the committee’s chair and an infectious disease professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“A whole range of co-factors must be eliminated to say, with certainty, that the only culprit is the Zika virus,” the Washington Post quoted him as saying.
Aedes mosquitoes, which spread Zika, are found in every country in North, Central, and South America except for two: Canada and continental Chile, according to the WHO’s Regional Office for the Americas. The agency “anticipates that Zika virus will continue to spread and will likely reach all countries and territories of the region where Aedes mosquitoes are found.”
As no vaccine exists to prevent Zika, doctors urge to prevent mosquito bites with insect repellents.