The Zika virus is a tiny microscopic organism which relies upon a host's cells to replicate its own genetic material and target the human nervous system. In healthy adults, Zika virus disease typically manifests itself with fevers, rashes, joint pain, and headaches. The virus is usually over in less than a week, rarely involves symptoms severe enough to merit hospitalization, and is frequently written off as a case of the flu.
The Zika virus has been closely monitored since its discovery in 1947, but outbreaks have always been difficult to track. Recent information is casting new focus on tracking the Zika virus, however. Scientific studies first began to suggest an association between the infection of pregnant women and an increase in microcephaly and other birth defects related to the development of the brain in utero.
When a woman who is pregnant suffers from Zika virus disease, the viral organism is able to cross the placental barrier and infect her unborn child. A health adult's immune system is usually able to fight off the Zika virus without too much trouble, but an unborn child is particularly vulnerable to its harmful influence.
Children who are born after having been affected by the Zika virus during their development in the womb have an unusually high rate of congenital birth defects, including microcephaly – an abnormally small head, which is usually the result of abnormal brain growth. Relatively mild microcephaly frequently results in impaired sight and hearing, developmental disorders, learning disabilities, and difficulty swallowing.
There are other possible effects, depending upon the extent of the physical deformity and the areas of the brain which are the most severely affected. Severe microcephaly, in some cases, may see little to no brain development at all, beyond the brain stem that is required to maintain autonomous functions. The condition is frequently fatal, particularly in severe cases.
Most adults do not suffer any known effects in response to Zika virus disease, although they do carry the disease post-infection in those areas of the body to which our immune system doesn't extend in full. Since this includes certain parts of our reproductive systems, the fact that Zika is a sexually transmissible disease becomes of greater concern: it may potentially be spread by a person who no longer shows any symptoms. Recently, this has been the case with several high-profile occurrences of ebola.
Research into the Zika virus is ongoing. Recent studies do suggest a correlation between Zika's preference for the nervous system, and Guillain-Barré syndrome, or GBS.
Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can appear following the otherwise successful recovery from a number of different infections, results in varying degrees of immobility up to and including the potential for full paralysis. This immobility usually goes away with time, but can last for weeks or months, and there may be further long-term complications such as weakness, exhaustion, and recurring tingling sensations in parts of the body which were previously affected.
The cause of GBS, which is not contagious in itself, is not entirely known. Nobody knows why it appears to be so selective in choosing its victims. It occurs subsequent to viral infection, but does not appear to be caused by the infection itself. It is thought by some to result from the body's immune system mistakenly attacking the nervous system, having previously adapted itself to fight off an infection which had targeted nerve cells.
Since its discovery, outbreaks of Zika virus disease are known to have occurred in Africa, east Asia, the Middle-East, and the islands of the south Pacific. The first known instances of human infection occurred in 1952, when it was reported in Uganda and in the United Republic of Tanzania.
The first major outbreak of the Zika virus to reach the international media occurred in Micronesia in 2007, where forty suspected cases resulted in no hospitalizations. At the time, Zika virus' effects on unborn children were not fully understood, and the outbreak received relatively little attention from the general population. The next major outbreak, however, would involve approximately 19,000 cases in French Polynesia in 2013-2014.
In 2015, there was an outbreak of Zika virus disease in Brazil. This particular outbreak has now spread, by means of modern air travel, to over 30 countries. Current estimates suggest that as many as 1 million individuals have been affected by the present outbreak, with up to 4 million predicted by the end of 2016 despite increasing countermeasures. Experts warn that the Zika virus could become a global health crisis within the very near future.
Zika's big leap to pandemic potential came as the result of its partnership with the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, a species of mosquito which is active during the day. The Aedes Aegypti prefers mammalian food sources; it feeds preferentially upon humans, regardless of the presence of convenient alternatives. and is known to be a carrier for other infectious diseases. Other mosquitos in the Aedes genus have also been found to carry the Zika virus, and the organism has shown up in other varieties of mosquito in the past, but not in direct association with the current outbreak.
Of particular concern to many is the recent discovery, associated with one or more cases in Canada, that Zika virus disease can be transmitted sexually. Many viral infections can linger for some time within the reproductive organs of individuals who no longer show any symptoms themselves. Coupled with the Zika virus' ability to pass relatively unnoticed as one of any number of other, less severe infections, this makes sexual transmission a major factor in the Zika virus' “explosive pandemic” potential.
Zika virus is tricky. In addition to its relatively mild symptoms, many people actually experience no symptoms at all. If you live in an area which is known to have a Zika virus outbreak, have recently traveled to such an area, or had sex with someone who lives in or has traveled to such an area, you should visit your doctor if you begin to display the following symptoms in correlation with one another:
If you are pregnant or looking to become pregnant, be sure to consult your doctor regarding your concerns with Zika Virus.
All Things Conceivable is a blog dedicated to sharing the knowledge and expert opinions of the dedicated team at ConceiveAbilities, a Chicago-based egg donation and surrogacy agency.