Concerns have mounted since the World Health Organization declared the mosquito-borne Zika virus an “international public health emergency”, but those concerns may turn into panic and an economic disaster with the mutating Zika virus becoming a “sexually transmitted infection.”
Media reports have improperly described the symptoms of mosquito-borne Zika virus infection in adults as similar to a rash and fever, with some aches and pains–a mild version of its viral cousins: dengue, yellow fever, and West Nile Disease.
The biggest concern highlighted has been a possible link to a rare birth defect called microcephaly, which results in babies born with unusually small heads, normally affecting about 12 out of 10,000 live births.
Zika virus was originally discovered in Uganda 69 years ago. Over the decades, it has caused modest discomfort during small and sporadic localized outbreaks in the tropics.
But the current outbreak was first reported in Brazil last May, when doctors noticed the number of babies suffering microcephaly had exploded over 20-fold to 240 cases per 10,000 live births.
The outbreak has since spread to pandemic levels in 20 countries stretching from Brazil to Mexico. Every continent on the planet, except Antarctica, have now also documented multiple cases of Zika virus.
Flaminia Catteruccia, Associate Professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has stated that the new Zika strain demonstrates the virus has adapted to the human environment by mutating to become “more pathogenic to humans.”
She suspects this means a mutation of the Zika virus is the “causative agent” behind the frightening outbreak of “Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disease of the nervous system now on the rise among adults in Brazil.” Normally considered a very rare tropical disease, there have been hundreds of Guillain-Barré cases reported in northern Brazil over the last few months.
The first symptom of Guillain-Barré include a weakness or tingling sensations in the legs. The symptoms can slowly increase in intensity to paralysis–first in the legs, then slowly spreading to the arms, and then the face and the rest of the body. Finally, the patient begins to suffer life-threatening interference with breathing.
The World Health Organization has recommended personal protective measures, including well-screened houses, mosquito nets, long-sleeved clothing and liberal amounts of bug spray.
Poor countries in the Americas have also quietly asked for aid to pay for mass overhead spraying as part of mosquito-eradication efforts–similar to those carried out in the mid-20th century. But the Obama Administration has been slow to issue funding due to concerns that environmental groups would protest that such efforts destroy natural habitats.
With 4 million new Zika cases expected in South and Central America this year, there are economic concerns that fears about the spread of Zika to America will threaten the $548 billion in U.S. trade with Mexico and Brazil.
The Center for Disease Control confirmed on February 3 that a Dallas case of Zika was due to sexually transmitted infection (STI). If Zika–or a possibly mutated strain–can also spread through sex, then it poses a risk of another HIV/Aids pandemic.
Officials in L.A. County confirmed Wednesday that while there has only been one locally confirmed case of Zika in the latest outbreak, several other patients are being tested for the disease, the Los Angeles Times reports.