West Nile, dengue, chikunguyna – all mosquito-borne viruses and all great reasons to break out the bug spray.
Now there’s another, called Zika. It’s only been on epidemiologists’ radar in South America for a few months, but this week, a Texas woman was diagnosed with Zika virus. Doctors says she likely contracted it on a trip to El Salvador, but the mosquitoes that carry the virus do seem to be making their way closer and closer to Texas.
Nikos Vasilakis, from the Galveston National Lab, is part of a team that’s been tracking the Zika virus.
Where did the virus originate?
“This is an obscure virus…. It was discovered in the late 40s and it came to the public awareness in 2007, when it caused the first major epidemic in humans in the island of Yap in the Pacific Ocean. Within the few years it reached pandemic proportions where the move to French Polynesia made its way to Easter Island and from there to Brazil. Once it made a foothold in Brazil, it spread very quickly to 12 additional countries in south and central america and even reached our southern border in Mexico.”
How did it spread?
“Likely it followed people. We believe it arrived in Brazil sometime last year when there were some activities with the World Cup. Some Brazilian investigators believe it may have come in with some members of the Chilean rowing team that made their way into southern Brazil. Once it made it there both the human density and the vector density were other ideal conditions for the virus to spread.”
What are the symptoms of Zika?
“(A majority) of the infections are completely asymptomatic that means that you maybe be infected with the virus and not knowing…. It’s a nondescript febrile illness – what we typically call this flu-like symptoms – but what we have found out with this epidemic now is that the people that are at most danger are pregnant women that get infected during the first trimester or pregnancy. That leads to a very rare congenital abnormality call microcephaly. The babies are born with a very small head, sometimes their brains are severely undeveloped.”
Is this controllable in Brazil or is it at epidemic levels?
“The situation is out of control in Brazil…. We are at the tail end of the dry season – the raining season. It starts at the end of February. Imagine the Olympics are going to take place in Brazil next summer, at the height of the raining season. So there is a possibility, and a strong concern, mainly visitors may be infected that could be spreading the virus to their home countries upon their return.”
What are researchers doing to control the spread of this virus?
“We are very fortunate here in southern Texas. The mosquito control is one of the best in the nation, if not in the world. They have a year-round surveillance system. If the virus makes it into the mosquito population here in southern Texas, we would be able to detect it early on, which will inform the public authorities to issue warnings about control and so forth.”