Before the virus goes viral


The latest virus to join the world’s health panic bandwagon is the Zika virus. Dr. Roopa Vernekar gives us an insight into a virus, which has not reached India yet, but may cast a pall over the Olympics to be hosted by Brazil later this year.

Exploration and invention have been a part of human evolution, occurring since ages. Starting from the invention of the wheel to fast cars. The invention of new gadgets, new and advanced version of electronics, new edition cars, and new range of beauty products. Lifestyle changes and modernisation have been a constant phenomenon.
Similar changes are also evident in the medical field. The medical field has advanced to great levels, the invention of vaccination for small pox led to the eradication of small pox; poliomyelitis is another disease that would be completely eradicated in another few years. In spite of such great advancements, the medical field faces many challenges with new microbes (viruses and bacteria) causing diseases. Apart from exhibiting various characteristics, these viruses also undergo mutation, making it a challenging task for the medical fraternity to diagnose, manage and treat the different kinds of signs and symptoms caused by these microbes. In recent times, the dengue virus and Zika virus are the ones causing havoc as they are spreading at an alarming rate.

A virus called Zika
Outbreak of the Zika virus in April 2015 in Brazil has been alarming, and has spread to South and Central America and the Carribean. In January, the US CDC (Centre for Disease Control) issued an alert for people travelling to these countries. In countries like Ireland, New Zealand, Canada, Columbia, Ecuador and Jamaica, pregnant women were advised to terminate their pregnancies, and women who had travelled to the affected countries were advised to postpone pregnancy for eight months as the virus is shown to cause microcephaly – a neurological disorder in the new-born. About 3500 microcephaly cases have been reported in Brazil between October 2015 and January 2016. The World Health Organisation has declared Zika virus as an international public health emergency due to its link to cause birth defects in the new- born. Brazil faces a greater challenge as a host to the Olympic Games in the summer of 2016.

India has not yet reported any cases infected with Zika virus causing birth defects, but the Zika virus forced the Tata Motors group to change the name of their new car ZICA!

History of the Zika virus
Though the outbreak of the virus in 2015 was alarming, it existed much before. This virus was first isolated in 1947 from a rhesus monkey in the Zika forest, and hence was called the Zika virus. There are two forms of the virus strains – the African strain and the Asian strain. Studies have shown that the recent outbreak in America is due to the Asian strain.

How does this disease spread?
Like dengue, this disease is known to spread through mosquito bite during the day time. The mosquitoes belong to the Aedes family, the Aedes aegypti, , A apicoargenteus, A furcifer, A hensilli, A leuteocephalus, A vitattus are some mosquitoes that act as vectors carrying the virus. The person gets affected 8-10 days after the bite from the infected mosquitoes. The virus has shown to cross the placental border and infect the foetus. It can also affect the new born during the time of birth from the infected mother. The virus can also be transmitted through sexual contact. Recently, the virus has been isolated from the urine and saliva of the infected person, indicating the potential for transmission through local contact, but the same has not been confirmed.

The Aedes mosquito
These mosquitoes are distinctive as they have white and black marking on their body and their legs. They are found in the tropical and the subtropical zones and are active during the day time, and usually bite during dawn and dusk. The genus of mosquito Aedes is known to cause other diseases like the dengue, yellow fever and chikungunya.

Signs and symptoms
The symptoms begin as any other viral infection like headache, fever, fatigue with joint pains, conjunctivitis and maculopapular rash. The fever is self limiting and resolves by itself within three to seven days and requires symptomatic treatment, but Zika fever in pregnant women can cause complications to the new born. The virus crosses the placental barrier and causes microcephaly in the new born.

The Zika virus is known to cause the Guillain Barre Syndrome. It is a syndrome in which a person’s immune system attacks the peripheral nerve cells damaging the myelin insulation. There is tingling in the beginning, leading to numbness, muscle weakness, which usually begins in the hands and feet. And finally leads to paralysis of the body parts. In some, the face and the neck may be involved, causing facial paralysis. Some recover within weeks, but in a few, the diseases may cause permanent paralysis. Death can occur in a few with the involvement of the vital organs.

Diagnosis and treatment
The Zika virus can be diagnosed through:
* PCR (polymerised chain reaction)
* Virus isolation from the blood samples.
No specific drug is available for treating Zika, so the symptoms are treated with paracetamol (for reducing the fever), consuming lots of fluids (as it causes dehydration), and rest. One has to avoid aspirin and pain killers until dengue is ruled out. Research is in progress for developing a vaccine for the Zika fever.

Prevention is better than cure
May it be dengue, chikungunya or the Zika, the best way to prevent them is by avoiding mosquito bites, as mosquitoes are the vectors that carry these viruses and transmit them to humans. A few measures one can take are:
* Prevent stagnant water near human dwellings as they provide an excellent site for breeding of these mosquitoes
* Use mosquito repellants, creams, coils and nets
* Wear full sleeved clothing
* Spray insecticides
* Avoid travelling to infected countries

Inspite of the outbreak in Brazil, the government of Brazil has assured of a minimal risk from the Zika virus and has assured the safety of the athletes, as the virus does not cause any serious complications, except in pregnant women. The government of Brazil is apparently taking all measures to reduce the breeding of mosquitoes and has provided assurances to reduce the mosquito count by August 2016, when the Olympics are hosted by them.


Dr. Roopa Vernekar

Dr. Roopa Vernekar is a dental graduate and a writer. She likes to write articles on medical and dental topics, as well as travel.