An obscure virus correlated with a birth defect and temporary paralysis syndrome has become a fast-growing concern in Latin America since it became an epidemic in Brazil, attracting the attention of global health officials in a race to understand, treat, and immunize against the disease.
The mosquito-borne Zika virus appears to correlate with an unusually high incidence rate of microcephaly, a condition in which babies are born with abnormally small heads, and with occurrences of Guillain-Barre syndrome, which temporarily paralyzes the hands and feet, and in extreme cases can cause death from respiratory failure. Thus far, three deaths in Brazil have been attributed to Zika.
Officials have warned pregnant women and women of childbearing age to take extreme precautions to avoid becoming afflicted with Zika.
The virus is carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito and is now present in 21 Brazilian states and the federal district. It has spread to many of Brazil's neighboring countries, as well as to nearly all of Central America and the Caribbean. The Pan American Health Organization anticipates that Zika will eventually reach every country in the Western Hemisphere except for Chile and Canada. On Feb. 1, the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency over the Zika pandemic.
President Dilma Rousseff has urged a massive mobilization campaign to eliminate breeding grounds for the Aedes aegypti mosquito in an effort to stem the spread of the virus. The mosquito also transmits dengue fever, another tropical disease that has spiked in Brazil in recent years. However, Zika's impact on pregnant women has prompted extra attention as Brazil partners with universities in the United States in the race for a cure.
'Here in Brazil, we will now start a serious fight against the Zika virus,' Rousseff said on Jan. 26, speaking on the sidelines of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit in Quito, Ecuador. 'Even if today we don't have a vaccine, we are certain that we will have one, but it will take time. The best vaccine against Zika is the fight that each one of us, the government, and society puts toward it, eliminating all the places where the mosquito lives and reproduces.'
From benign to malignant
The Zika virus was first isolated in Uganda in 1947, and for the last 70 years had been largely confined to a narrow equatorial stretch of Africa and Asia, rendering it largely obscure in the annals of tropical medicine. In 2007,...