The Z Virus

Written by Angelo Manaloto

For the past month or so, a virus has swept through the Western hemisphere, yet many have remained in the dark. Despite popular belief that the Zika Virus is a virus that has just recently seen the light of day, it was first discovered in 1947, in Uganda’s appropriately named Zika Forest. Since then, it appeared only sporadically in various parts of Africa and Southeast Asia, with no more than 20 cases until 2007, when it had its first major outbreak in Micronesia. Subsequently, outbreaks began to increase in pace, with another one in French Polynesia in 2013, and the latest one being in Brazil just May of last year. It has since spread to 26 other countries in the Americas.

The origin of the virus remains unclear. A recent report from Reuters suspects that “the virus was brought to Brazil during the 2014 soccer World Cup by a visitor from Africa or Oceania where Zika is endemic.” However logical an explanation that may be, it remains a mere speculation. And so attention must be diverted first and foremost to the facts at hand. There is now general consensus that the virus has direct links to the recent increase in birth defects that have been attributed to microcephaly. To those who are familiar with the more common hydrocephalus, which is a progressive enlargement of the head as a result of an accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain, microcephaly achieves the opposite effect: the baby’s skull is significantly smaller, limiting brain development.

The virus, like many others, is transmitted predominantly through mosquito bites. The A. aegypti and A. albopictus have been the two mosquito types identified to be the main carriers of the virus. This comes as a peculiar surprise, considering the Aedes species mosquito is also the main carrier for viruses such as chikungunya and dengue, with which we are more familiar, especially in tropical countries like the Philippines. These two viruses, like Zika, remain without a cure. Although the Americas has been the site  for the Zika Virus’ latest outbreak, this raises serious questions for Africa and less developed countries in Asia, which suffer poor public health infrastructure, virtually non-existent mosquito control, and overpopulation.

Just this past Monday, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Zika Virus a global health emergency. The WHO has only made such a designation three times since 2007: the first during 2009 amidst the H1N1 pandemic, and both the second and third times in 2014 when polio seemed to have resurfaced and Ebola was on the rise. In the United States, where concrete government action is being sought, President Obama has asked Congress for $1.8 billion to combat the Zika Virus, but a response has been rather slow. On this side of the planet, however, all we can do is protect ourselves against mosquitoes and remain hopeful that the epidemic does not spread any further.