Mosquito-borne Zika virus emerges new public health threat

04 January 2016

A little-known mosquito-borne virus, Zika, has caused an ''unprecedent[ed] situation'' in the world of scientific research. The Zika virus spread by mosquitoes is said to be the cause of the huge surge in babies being born with microcephaly, in Northeastern Brazil, a rare, incurable condition in which their heads are abnormally small.

Official figures put the number of cases at 2,782 in 2015, as against 147 in 2014 and 167 in 2013. At least 40 infant deaths from the condition have been reported so far.

The virus is named after the Zika forest in Uganda, Africa, where it was first identified in rhesus monkeys in 1947. It was reported in humans in 1952, however, it was unknown in the Americas until last year.

The virus is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which also spreads dengue and chikungunya.

The last few years had seen confirmed cases from Brazil, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname and Venezuela.

Scientists had considered the virus to be benign until recently. In November 2015, it was, for the first time, linked to a surge in babies born with the condition.

According to the estimates of the Brazilian government, since May 2015, some 1.5 million people had been infected with the virus. The infection was mostly benign in children and adults, some suffered from fever and red rashes, while others may not have any symptoms.

However, after the virus was found in the placenta of children born with microcephaly, doctors in Brazil, had been warning women to delay their pregnancy if at all possible.

According to CNN, most mothers of microcephalic children, had Zika-like symptoms early in their pregnancy.

There was little physiological evidence to show Zika virus could cause microcephaly, as previous epidemics in Micronesia and French Polynesia which affected thousands of people, did not cause a spike in microcephaly.

According to Alain Kohl, a virologist at the University of Glasgow, who studies Zika, a new strain of the virus could be responsible for the infection spreading through Brazil.

However, according to experts, even for the fastest evolving organism on the planet, acquiring completely new powers of devastation was rare.

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