The Zika Virus - Silent, But Dangerous

Published on 
February 21, 2016

A once relatively unknown virus has recently made headlines as over 4000 cases of severe birth defects connected to the virus have been reported in Brazil. The Zika virus is related to the dengue and west Nile viruses and has many researchers scrambling to uncover both how the virus causes these defects and how to prevent the virus from spreading. To better understand the Zika virus, we spoke to Grace Aldrovandi, MD, CM chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

What are some of the effects that can result from the Zika virus?

Most people (about 80%) infected with the Zika virus are asymptomatic, showing no symptoms. Those who have symptoms typically develop fever, rash, joint pain and/or conjunctivitis. These symptoms are usually mild and resolve within 7 to 10 days. The major concern with this virus comes from recent reports associating the virus to serious birth defects. The most serious is microcephaly, a condition where babies are born with undersized heads due to inadequate brain development. Infants with this condition often suffer from seizures, intellectual disabilities, deficits in vision and hearing, and other neurological issues. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine found high levels of the virus in fetal brain tissues, suggesting birth defects associated with the virus may be due to viral replication in the brain. Evidence supporting this association is mounting.

Are there any treatments or vaccines available for the Zika virus?

At the moment, there are no available treatments or vaccines for the Zika virus.

How is the Zika virus transmitted?

It is transmitted by daytime-active mosquitos that can also spread other viruses such as dengue and chikungunya. Among humans, it appears to also be transmitted transplacentally, from pregnant women to fetuses. Additionally, cases of sexual transmission have been reported.

What can be done to limit the spread of the virus?

Global warming and travel are facilitating the spread of many infections to new areas of the world. Mosquito containment is critical for limiting the spread of the virus. For those traveling to countries where the virus is prevalent, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends covering exposed skin, sleeping under mosquito nets, and using insect repellents.

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