Zika, the brand new virus

  • Nation
  • Saturday, 30 Jan 2016

City workers fumigate a park as part of preventive measures against the Zika virus and other mosquito-borne diseases in Santa Tecla, El Salvador January 29, 2016. - REUTERS

PETALING JAYA: Described as a “brand new” virus, researchers are scrambling to understand the very basics, including how to prevent, treat and diagnose the emerging mosquito-borne threat of Zika virus.

Pregnant women are being urged to think twice before travelling to Latin American and Caribbean countries battling a rise in cases of microcephaly - a rare but brutal condition that shrinks the brains of unborn babies.

The virus has expanded swiftly in recent years and been linked to brain damage in babies.

AFP reports Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), as saying that "this is a brand-new virus so we, prior to this time, have really not spent anything on Zika."

Nor is there any vaccine on the market yet against dengue virus, which comes from the same family of flaviviruses.
The Malaysian Health Ministry has issued a warning that Malaysia is vulnerable to the disease.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said the virus could infect as many as four million people in the Americas.

The increase has coincided with an outbreak of the usually benign Zika virus. But the virus and the birth defects have not been scientifically linked, leaving many questions about what is happening to these children in the womb.

Here are some questions you need to know of the Zika virus:


Babies with microcephaly have an abnormally small brain and skull for their age, in the womb or at birth, with varying degrees of brain damage as a result. It has many potential causes: infections, viruses, toxins or unknown genetic factors.


In serious cases, early death. If the brain is under-developed, the body cannot function properly. In French Polynesia (one of the regions affected), these deformities have caused most of the babies to be stillborn, as the unborn infants simply cannot survive.

For children who survive pregnancy and are born with microcephaly, the future is bleak. In the worst cases, children will be severely intellectually and physically handicapped. But even those less severely affected will likely struggle with psychomotor impairment - characterised by slow thought, speech and physical movements.


Many types of viral infections, such as rubella or cytomegalovirus, can cause physical deformities and intellectual deficiencies, especially during the first three months of pregnancy, when the vital organs are being formed. Viruses can travel through the placenta and infect the foetus directly, sometimes in the brain.


Microcephaly cases seem to have increased in the zone of the Zika outbreak. But also, the virus has been detected in stillborn children with microcephaly, as well as in the amniotic fluid. The link between Zika and microcephaly is highly likely, but has not yet been proven scientifically. The evidence for the link is relatively strong, and considered strong enough to warrant public health measures.


Studies are underway in French Polynesia, where a Zika outbreak ocurred around the end of 2013 to beginning of 2014, to better understand how the virus may affect foetuses. In Martinique, where there is an outbreak right now, a trial group of pregnant women is being put together for study.

The difficulty is that people infected with the virus usually have no symptoms. A pregnant woman can thus be infected without knowing it. On the other hand, cases have been observed of pregnant women infected with Zika whose children did not develop microcephaly.


There has been a case of sexual transmission, and theoretically transmission by transplantation or transfusion cannot be ruled out. The main route of infection is through mosquitoes. - AFP/Reuters

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Zika virus , mosquitoes , dengue , health


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