What You Should Know About Zika, The Virus That’s Harming Unborn Babies’ Brains

CREDIT: AP Photo, Martin Mejia

A health worker fumigates a cemetery to prevent Zika virus in Lima, Peru, Wednesday, Jan 20, 2016.

News of the Zika virus has come to the Americans in urgent warnings straight out of a dystopian novel: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned Americans to avoid traveling to 20 countries. Women are being told to not become pregnant for at least two years. People across the Western Hemisphere are to stay indoors, avoiding any potential exposure to mosquitoes.

The unprecedented surge in cases creeping across the West has left little time for a formal introduction. The virus, it seems, is spreading faster than the public’s understanding of what it really is. Here’s what you need to know as Zika makes its way toward the continental United States:

Where did it come from?

Zika is the name of a forest in eastern Uganda where, in 1947, epidemiologists first discovered the virus living in monkeys. Until recently, cases of the Zika virus in humans were rare and contained to the African continent. In 2007, cases began popping up in Polynesia and Micronesia. And then came the 2014 World Cup.

Zika first appeared in the Western Hemisphere in 2014 — sprouting up across Brazil shortly after the country hosted the World Cup, an event many infectious diseases experts say was the catalyst for its quick spread across the Americas. These same experts fear the upcoming 2016 Olympics, also hosted by Brazil, could further spread the disease, despite efforts by the country’s tourism department to dismantle the argument.

History backs these experts’ concerns. Major sports and religious events have sparked multiple global outbreaks of infectious diseases in the past — most recently during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, where a measles outbreak swept through the remote indigenous communities of British Columbia.

What does it do?

Zika is a virus transmitted by a common suspect, the mosquito. Once infected, a person may have mild flu-like symptoms for several days — but a whooping 80 percent of those infected show no symptoms at all, according to the CDC. This sounds relatively harmless until you factor in the population most vulnerable to the virus: unborn babies. Zika has been linked to the rash of babies being born with microcephaly, or an underdeveloped brain. Brazilian health authorities reported over 3,500 cases of microcephaly in the last four months alone. The country typically only sees 150 cases annually. Last week, a Hawaii woman who had previously traveled to Brazil, where she contracted the disease, gave birth to the first baby showing birth defects caused by Zika in the United States.

Experts are wondering whether the virus can be transmitted in other ways — like through semen — but definitive cases have yet to be found.

Why is it spreading so quickly?

There is no known vaccine for the virus. The Pan American Health Organization’s (PAHO) leading prevention tips are simply to “prevent mosquito bites” and “reduce mosquito populations,” two tasks that most people generally follow in their daily lives. And since the virus is so new to the Americas, the population lacks the kind of immunity that African populations have strengthened for decades.

Climate change is also a culprit in Zika’s proliferation. Mosquito thrive in warm environments. So, as regions see an increasing rise in average temperatures, they’re also documenting a spike in the population of mosquito carrying the Zika virus. Bill McKibben, environmentalist and co-founder, called the current spread of Zika the most severe of any outbreak linked to global warming.

“We need to face up to the fact that pushing the limits of the planet’s ecology has become dangerous in novel ways. We’re in an emergency, one whose face morphs each week into some new and hideous calamity,” he wrote in Monday editorial in the Guardian.

So, what can realistically be done to combat it?

It depends on the country.

The United States is simply telling people to avoid affected areas. The CDC placed a travel warning on at least 20 countries so far, warning pregnant women in particular that if they travel to these countries, their unborn child may be born with birth defects.

Other countries are putting the responsibility on women themselves, advising them to put off getting pregnant until the outbreak quells. At least five countries — Ecuador, El Salvador, Jamaica, Venezuela, and Colombia — have issued this warning. However, that’s easier said than done for the women who live there. All of these countries are known for their high rates of sexual violence, and their governments leave women with limited access to birth control and abortion — strict laws in El Salvador, for instance, leave some women incarcerated for decades after attempting to end a pregnancy.

“It’s incredibly naive for a government to ask women to postpone getting pregnant in a context such as Colombia, where more than 50 percent of pregnancies are unplanned and across the region where sexual violence is prevalent,” Monica Roa, a member of Women’s Link Worldwide group, told the BBC.

With no vaccine in sight, the most effective action may come in countries’ efforts to eradicate mosquitoes. Brazil has tasked its army with destroying any urban breeding grounds for mosquitoes, even using drones to track down areas with standing water. Other countries are dousing urban areas with pesticides to drown out mosquito habitats. But supplies are scarce.

“I’m going to be very frank, we don’t have enough fogging machines to fog every single community in Jamaica,” Jamaica Health Minister Horace Dalley said in a recent press conference.

The solution closest to a science fiction plot comes from Britain, where a biotech company is working to to create an army of genetically-modified mosquitoes that could battle the virus. By releasing sterile males mosquitoes into diseases countries, breeding could come to a halt. But, despite early success in concentrated areas, this expensive approach has yet to gain traction.