Threat of `Zika' looms as virus spreads across South America and beyond

After the deadly Ebola that struck Western Africa a year ago, it is now the debilitating Zika virus that is taking a toll on Brazil and several other South American countries and threatening to spread to North America and Europe.

The Zika virus has already spread to more than dozen countries in South and Central America and up to Mexico and one case was confirmed in Puerto Rico in December.

The outbreak began in April 2015 in Brazil, and subsequently spread to other countries in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said the virus is likely to spread throughout the majority of the Americas by the end of the year. The virus is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is commonly found throughout the Americas.

The virus has also been isolated from the semen, and only one case of possible sexual transmission of the virus has been described but not confirmed.

The Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), which is the regional office of WHO, also says that the virus can be transmitted through blood, but if standard practices of safe blood transfusion are followed, the spread of the virus through this route can be prevented.

In around one in five cases, infection with Zika virus results in a minor illness known as Zika fever, which causes symptoms such as fever and a rash. However, Zika virus infection in pregnant women has been linked with thousands of cases of newborn microcephaly.

The virus transfers from mother to child during pregnancy; the virus has been linked to underdeveloped brains in babies. There have been 4,000 cases of microcephaly (babies born with tiny brains) in Brazil since October 2015.

The lack of natural immunity in the US is supposedly aiding the spread of the virus. The virus was first found to be spreading in the US in May 2015.

Since the first three months are crucial for the development of organs of the foetus, if the mother is infected during this period, the survival of such a baby becomes difficult, says doctors.

Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador and Jamaica have also asked women to delay pregnancy because there is no treatment available for the disease yet.

The virus exhibits flu-like symptoms, which include mild fever, conjunctivitis, headache, rash, arthralgia, myalgia,  asthenia. The symptoms are visible after two to seven days after the mosquito bite.

The PAHO also says that one out of four people may develop symptoms, and they might last for two to seven days.

Although the mortality rate of the infection is small, Dr Sonawane says, serious complications can include paralysis and liver failure, and the prognosis of the disease is very poor since very little information is currently available.

Patients that have low immunity to diseases, like those suffering from heart disease, diabetes, liver disease, the elderly, children and pregnant women are more at risk of suffering from an infection.

The PAHO warns pregnant women against visiting Zika affected areas. One should also protect themselves from mosquitoes that cause dengue and chikungunya.

Empty and clean all types of containers that can hold an even tiny amount of water to prevent mosquito breeding.  Use an insect repellent and cover yourself and keep doors and windows closed.