Health authorities in Brazil are warning couples to delay pregnancies as they treat thousands of cases of infant brain damage experts believe could be linked to the rare African Zika virus. Some suggest the virus made its appearance in Brazil through the high influx of tourists following the 2014 World Cup.
“It’s a very personal decision, but at this moment of uncertainty, if families can put off their pregnancy plans, that’s what we’re recommending,” Angela Rocha, the pediatric infectologist at Oswaldo Cruz Hospital in Pernambuco, told CNN. Officials have recorded over 2,400 cases of microcephaly, a disorder in infants in which the size of the brain is abnormally small, this year; for comparison, doctors recorded only 147 cases of microcephaly in 2014. 29 of the infants diagnosed with microcephaly in 2015 have died.
Rocha tells CNN that “a generation of babies” is being affected in Pernambuco, the hardest-hit region of Brazil. Six states have declared a state of emergency over the matter. One of the infants was found to be carrying the Zika virus in their blood during an autopsy, and a number of the mothers reported symptoms characteristic of carrying the virus.
According to Brazil’s federal association of Obstetrician/Gynecologists, the symptoms of Zika contamination are “like dengue fever, but less aggressive,” and “70 to 80 percent of patients are asymptomatic.” The Wall Street Journal notes that most adults who contract the Zika virus recover in about a week through “bed rest and liquids,” and symptoms include “fever, rashes, headaches, joint aches and vomiting.”
The similarities to diseases like dengue could lead to a number of patients not being recorded, receiving treatment for dengue fever instead and recovering. CNN notes the similarities in the symptoms are no coincidence: Zika, dengue, yellow fever, and Chikungunya virus are all the product of interactions with Aedes aegypti, a species of mosquito. Aedes aegypti lives in the southern areas of the United States, particularly Texas, where the crippling Chikungunya virus has been found.
Zika virus, CNN notes, first surfaced in Uganda more than half a century ago, but was only identified in Brazil in early 2015, leading to the conclusion that tourists visiting for the 2014 World Cup were responsible for carrying it into a new continent. In addition to appearing in one of the infants diagnosed with microcephaly, Brazilian newspaper O Globo reports of an adult case of Zika being transmitted through a blood transfusion in Sao Paolo state. Brazilian hospitals screen blood donors for major diseases, like various forms of hepatitis and HIV, but have no way of testing for Zika. Officials confirmed with the newspaper that “there is not currently a commercial test to identify the virus commercially available for use on a large scale.” This leaves open the possibility that a pregnant woman could receive the virus through a blood transfusion should she need one during the course of the pregnancy.
Due to the El Niño weather phenomenon, O Globo warns that 2016 could bring the “summer of Zika.” Temperatures are expected to be milder and more humid, which meteorologist Francisco de Assis Diniz described as “music to a mosquito’s ears.”
Brazilians have taken the matter into their own hands, seeking more information on the virus. Matheus Pizão and Tatiana Viana, an expecting couple, have started the Twitter hashtag #SemZika (“without Zika”) to use as a resource for sharing information about identifying and avoiding Zika. “Tatiana and I waited ten years to have our first child and we were horrified,” Pizão explains to the newspaper. “We doubled our precautions. But we also began to talk about what we could be doing so that others may take care, as well, not just those expecting.”
There is currently no vaccine against Zika virus.