If you have been paying attention to the headlines, you may have heard about the Zika virus. However, do you know what Zika is and how it harms people? Can you identify the areas to avoid and the precautions to take to protect yourself if you need to go to those places?
In this article, we are going to examine Zika; it’s symptoms, and how it affects adults and the irreparable harm it does to children.
The Zika Virus is World Wide
The Zika virus isn’t a disease found only in the developing world; it is found in many places on the globe including the continents of Africa, Asia, all the Americas and in the Caribbean and the Pacific islands as well.
The world first became aware of the Zika virus when scientists were studying yellow fever in the Ugandan Zika forest in 1947 in the monkey population. The next year these same scientists found that the Zika virus was transmitted to the monkeys by the Aedes mosquitoes that lived in the region.
In 1964, scientists detected the first case of the Zika virus humans after researchers found antibodies for Zika in the blood of people living in Uganda and Tanzania in 1952.
Jump to 2013-2014 when the largest outbreak of the Zika virus to have ever occurred to date took place. The location of the outbreak was French Polynesia, and this region experienced about 32,000 cases.
There were also outbreaks during that year in the Pacific Islands affecting the populations of Easter Island, New Caledonia, and the Cook Islands.
It was during this time that an increase in cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome suggested a link between the Zika virus and the rare neurological syndrome.
Guillain-Barre Syndrome affects adults by attacking the body’s immune system and the nerves of the body. The syndrome results in weakness and tingling starting in the extremities and spreading quickly to the whole body.
Severe cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome are medically severe emergencies as the numbness can become a body paralysis. Most adults recover after receiving adequate treatment.
In July 2016, officials in the state of Utah in the United States reported the first Zika-related death to occur in that country, and in August 2016, the CDC told pregnant women and their partners to steer clear of visiting Miami Florida.
In November 2016, it was the state of Texas’ turn as they reported Zika virus cases. Subsequently, the Centers for Disease Control put out a bulletin advising women who may become or who are pregnant and their partners not to travel to that state.
Now there is no place on earth where the Zika virus cannot travel since the mosquito that started the outbreak need not be present. All the virus needs is a human host going on an airliner to spread the virus globally.
The First Thing to Understand; What is a Virus?
First, let’s explore the term virus and what it means. The website dictionary.com offers the following definition: “a virus is an extremely tiny parasite that can only reproduce if it is within a living being or anything that corrupts something else.”
Unlike bacteria that are capable of multiplying on their own, viruses must have a host organism to survive and reproduce. Both bacteria and viruses can be hugely vital to humans, but many infections from viruses are killers.
Thankfully, we now have vaccines to prevent some viruses from infecting humans like the vaccines for mumps and whooping cough, killers of young children.
Zika is only one of the millions of viruses that exist in the world and affect humans, yet the consequences of contracting it are just now becoming clear.
How Zika is Spread
According to The Center for Disease Control, the Zika virus is transmitted four ways, via a mosquito bite, from mother to child, or through sexual contact and blood transfusion.
Transmission by Mosquito Bite. The primary way the Zika virus is transmitted is through being bitten by an infected Aedes species mosquito. Like most mosquitoes, Aedes mosquitoes lay their eggs in standing water like animal dishes, flower pots, and buckets. They thrive both indoors and outdoors near their main food supply, humans.
To be fair, these mosquitoes are not born harboring the Zika virus; they spread it by biting a person who is already infected and then biting others.
From Mother to Child. A mother who has been infected with the Zika virus can pass it on to her fetus while she is pregnant. Unfortunately, Zika causes severe fetal brain defects, including microcephaly. Researchers suspect that Zika is responsible for other congenital disabilities as well and research is ongoing.
It must be noted here that a pregnant woman can pass the virus to her baby either during the pregnancy or around the time they are born.
There have been reports of the Zika virus being found in breast milk. However, there have been no cases reported of a baby contracting Zika from being breastfed.
For now, until further research has been done, the CDC supports the vital need for babies to be breastfed over the small risk of Zika passing from mother to child.
The CDC is doing more studies, and if there needs to be a change in that policy, they will quickly send out updates and recommendations.
The Sexual Transmission of the Zika Virus. Like HIV, Zika can be passed from person to person through sexual contact even if the infected person has no symptoms or never shows signs of having the virus. Not only this, but Zika can be passed from person to person while they have symptoms and even after their symptoms have ended.
The Transmission of Zika through Blood Transfusion. There have been no confirmed blood transmission related cases of Zika in the United States. However, other countries have found instances where outbreaks of Zika caused contamination of their blood supplies.
Since the virus has been detected in the blood of donors, it is only reasonable to suspect that those who received this blood will also become infected.
Other Means of Transmission. Although there are four primary ways of contracting Zika, it was reported to have been transmitted to laboratory technicians as well.
So far there has been no confirmed Zika virus transmitted cases among healthcare workers in the United States.
The Reason the Zika Virus is So contagious
The Zika virus can remain alive for a long time in blood, urine, semen, saliva and vaginal secretions. The Science News recently reported some horrifying findings. Not only can the Zika virus remain alive and active inside its human host for an average of fifty-four days, but the following numbers that are frightening.
Zika remains alive in the bodily fluids many days:
- 54 days in blood serum
- 39 days in urine
- 81 days in semen
These findings mean that a person who contracts Zika can pass on the disease for many days before it dies, and the body is clear.
The Symptoms of a Zika Infection
Many adults who become infected with the Zika virus will not have mild symptoms or sometimes will have no symptoms at all. However, here are the main symptoms of a Zika infection:
- A headache
- Joint Pain
- Conjunctivitis (red eyes)
These symptoms of a Zika infection last anywhere from several days to a week, and people usually don’t feel ill enough to go to the hospital. Zika is very rarely fatal, and most people will never realize they were infected.
However, it is recommended that if you suspect that you are infected because you live in an area where Zika is common and have any of the above symptoms.
The Horrible Toll of Zika to Newborn Babies
There are many congenital disabilities to newborn babies that directly result from their mothers having contracted the Zika virus. Among these disabilities is a condition called microcephaly.
Microcephaly entails a baby being born with its head smaller than it should be as compared to other children. These children often have smaller brains that may not develop properly.
During pregnancy, a baby’s skull is known to normally grow as the baby’s brain grows. In microcephaly, the baby’s brain does not develop or stops growing after birth.
Children born with microcephaly may have a list of problems depending on how severe a case they exhibit. Below are some of the issues that have been linked to microcephaly:
- Developmental delays (sitting, standing, and walking)
- Intellectual disabilities
- Problems moving or with balance
- Feeding problems (problems swallowing or other difficulties)
- Hearing loss
- Vision problems
These problems may be either mild or severe and last the child’s entire life.
The unfortunate truth is that the Zika virus causes a severe form of microcephaly meaning these children will have the most severe symptoms from the above list.
Congenital Zika Syndrome
This Zika related syndrome includes a unique pattern of congenital disabilities to babies infected before birth. Babies suffering from congenital Zika syndrome have four distinct features other than microcephaly. These birth defects include decreased brain tissue, damage to the optic nerves, congenital contractions, and hypertonia.
Decreased Brain Tissue (Anencephaly). Anencephaly is a severe birth defect where the baby is born without parts of their brain and skull.
If the neural tube, a small structure that develops into part of the brain’s development, does not form and close properly, the baby will be born without the front part of the brain. This portion of the human brain is responsible for thinking and coordinating movements.
The remaining parts of these unfortunate children’s brains are often not covered with bone or skin leaving them helpless against injury or infection.
Damage to the Optic Nerves. While the Zika virus causes only mild eye disease in adults, it can cause blindness to infected babies after they are born. The damage mainly involves scar tissue forming on the baby’s retina and optic nerves, but Zika can also cause congenital glaucoma.
Congenital glaucoma is a condition causing increased pressure in the baby’s eye or eyes. This condition occurs because the eye’s drainage system did not develop correctly.
Because the fluid cannot drain from the eye properly, damage occurs to the optic nerve causing vision loss and scarring that is irreversible.
If the Zika virus damages the retina or optic nerves, the baby will be permanently blinded.
Hypertonia. Hypertonia is a condition where the muscles of the newborn are rigid, so they have difficulty moving and flexing. This muscle rigidity is caused by the damage done to the baby’s central nervous system by the Zika virus.
This damage to the baby’s central nervous system means their brains cannot communicate well with the muscles in the child’s body.
This miscommunication between the brain and the baby’s muscles is evident soon after birth and will result in the child needing prolonged therapies and medical treatments.
Although Zika related deaths among newborns are considered rare, life for these children who are born with so many birth defects cannot be expected to go well.
Preventing the Zika Virus Through Preventative Measures
If this piece has been uncomfortable or even frightening to you, it should be. This virus is dangerous to newborn children and must be stopped. Until then, there are some vital things you can do to prevent yourself from becoming a victim and carrier of this disease.
Prevent Getting Bitten by Infected Mosquitoes. While many people think that mosquitoes only bite during the night, they are incorrect. The mosquitoes that carry Zika are active during the day as well. The following tips can prevent you from contracting Zika.
Keep mosquitoes out of your room both day and night. To do so, use screening and a bed netting while you are sleeping or resting.
Insect repellent can help keep mosquitoes from biting you. When using insect repellents always make sure to follow the directions on the package and use only EPA-registered insect repellent. Never spray repellent on your skin under your clothing and use caution around an open flame. If you are also using sunscreen, apply your sunscreen first and then the insect repellent.
Plan where you are traveling carefully. Check online to see what countries are experiencing a Zika outbreak and choose whether to travel to those areas.
If you are pregnant, considering getting pregnant in the future, or a partner of a person planning on getting pregnant it is highly advised that you do not take your trip. The quality and life of a child are at stake.
Not having sex is the only way to eliminate not contracting the Zika virus. However, if sex is a must than using protection during sex with a new partner is vital.
The use of condoms can reduce the chance of contracting Zika during sex. This protection includes both male and female condoms.
A Vaccine for the Zika Virus is Coming
A vaccine for the Zika virus will be found eventually, but many milestones must first be met before it receives worldwide approval for use.
Experts are working hard to find an effective vaccine and in 2017 a Zika vaccine was given to rhesus monkeys and was successful in keeping the monkeys from getting the virus.
Clinical trials were conducted on adult humans in 2017 with purified inactivated Zika virus and were well-tolerated. The vaccine induced an immune response to the infection.
As a result of this success, Walter Reed Army Institute for Research is cofounding trials with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and the National Institutes of Mental Health to find out if this vaccine can be widely used.
Zika isn’t something that happens to people far away in exotic locations, it has the ability, thanks to world travel to harm children all over the globe.
By remembering that fact and taking precautions, Zika need not be spread any farther than it has and can eventually be eradicated.
If you found this article as distressing as I the author did, then today is the time to consider how you can protect yourself and any children you may be discussing in the future.
The future of millions of unborn babies depends on our acting with responsibility and caution.
Working together, the world can rid humans of the heartbreak of having children born with horrendous congenital disabilities due to the Zika virus.
Authors Note: I realize this topic is very hard to discuss. I had a hard time writing this piece when I realized the horrible things that happen to infected newborns. But, if we do not discuss openly such things as Zika, we cannot effectively work together to end its reign of terror.
Please, take the information I have presented in this article to take adequate precautions to prevent you and your children from suffering the fate that so many already have.
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