Zika Travels Where Tourists Fear to Tread

Kamya Sanjay, Staff Writer

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Students, meet Zika. It’s hard to find, virtually incurable, and a primary perpetrator of worrisome and uncommon birth defects (Wow, really? Why weren’t we acquainted sooner?) but what is it? Zika virus poses countless questions to the scientific community that stump even the frontrunners of modern medicine. Although new developments are being made each day regarding the myths of this medical conundrum, a few key questions can be answered in full. Where did Zika come from, where is it going, and why does it matter?

The Zika virus is a relative of West Nile virus, dengue, and Yellow Fever — and just like its cousins, it relies on a vector to travel from host to host. Aedes aegypti, the infamous yellow fever mosquito, provides transport for the virus by sucking infected blood from a human host, which travels to the insect’s midgut. From the midgut, the virus enters the circulatory system of the mosquito, where it is rendered ineffective, and eventually makes its way back to the salivary glands. When the mosquito attacks again it inserts its proboscis into the next victim, and since mosquitoes inject venom to keep their target’s blood from clotting, the infected saliva enters the bloodstream of the new host. Yikes.

The virus is not a new phenomenon; in fact, the United States has observed domestic cases of Zika since 2007, when the first big Zika outbreak occurred in Micronesia, a subregion of Oceania, and a traveler came back contaminated and contagious. What sets the most recent outbreak apart from any previous cases is a discovery of new possible side effects: microcephaly and autoimmune disease.

The Zika virus can result in birth defects and unusually small heads.

Photo courtesy of BBC
The Zika virus can result in birth defects and unusually small heads.

A contraction of Zika is characterized by relatively mild, flu-like symptoms such as aches, rash, and red eyes. In fact, an infection rarely requires hospitalization. The appearance of a Zika patient is rarely out of the ordinary or odd in any way, and the real peculiarities of the disease seem to manifest themselves in other ways. A pregnant woman who was infected with Zika in Brazil late in 2015 gave birth to a baby with an abnormally small head and brain. Scientists identified the enigma as a developmental hindrance known as microcephaly, which targets the head of newborn infants and can sometimes result in behavioural and intellectual disabilities along with speech impediments.

Unfortunately, scientists aren’t completely certain that Zika and microcephaly have a direct correlation. Cases of microcephaly are currently at an all time high in Brazil, the new incubation zone of Zika, and the virus has been found in the brains of some of the infected infants. However, to affirm that Zika indeed causes microcephaly, the CDC has launched a case control study that will take blood samples from babies with microcephaly whose mothers had harbored the virus during pregnancy. They will compare the results from these tests to other recent mothers of similar location and socioeconomic status who delivered healthy babies. Finally, they will ask both sets of mothers various questions to identify other situations that may have put their child in danger of microcephaly (after all, there are many other factors that can lead to the birth defect, such as toxoplasmosis, cytomegalovirus, and mercury exposure.) They hope that such a study will yield more conclusive results.

Zika is still an enigma and will surely remain a topic of conversation in the scientific community.”

The virus is blazing through Latin America and the Caribbean, and government officials have advised women to avoid becoming pregnant until the disease has been thoroughly controlled. There has only been one local case of Zika contraction in the United States, and it was supposedly spread through sexual contact in Texas. Zika isn’t a severe threat to denizens of the States, as the CDC has remarked that outbreaks can easily be controlled. But Zika is still an enigma and will surely remain a topic of conversation in the scientific community until the virus, hopefully, dies down. To keep track of Zika and some of the most recent information regarding the spread of the virus, visit http://www.cdc.gov/zika/.

 

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