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No vaccine, no cure: A look at Zika virus that shrinks babies’ brains

A little-known virus spread by mosquitoes is causing one of the most alarming health crises to hit Brazil in decades: thousands of cases of brain damage, in which babies are born with unusually small heads.

Updated: Jan 06, 2016 12:56 IST
HT Correspondent
Angelica Pereira, right, holds her daughter Luiza as she waits for their appointment with a neurologist at the Mestre Vitalino Hospital in Caruaru, Pernambuco state, Brazil.
Angelica Pereira, right, holds her daughter Luiza as she waits for their appointment with a neurologist at the Mestre Vitalino Hospital in Caruaru, Pernambuco state, Brazil. (AP)

A little-known virus spread by mosquitoes is causing one of the most alarming health crises to hit Brazil in decades: thousands of cases of brain damage, in which babies are born with unusually small heads.

Many pregnant women across Brazil are in a panic. The Brazilian government, under withering criticism for not acting sooner, is urging them to take every precaution to avoid mosquito bites. One official has even suggested that women living in areas where mosquitoes are especially prevalent postpone having children.

Solange Ferreira bathes her son Jose Wesley in a bucket at their house in Poco Fundo, Pernambuco state, Brazil. Ferreira says her son enjoys being in the water, she places him in the bucket several times a day to calm him. (AP)

Here is all you need to know about the virus:

What is Zika virus?

Zika is a mosquito-borne virus that causes fever. The virus is named after the Zika forest in Uganda, where it was identified in rhesus monkeys during a yellow fever outbreak in 1947.

Why is it in the news?

Brazilian health authorities in November linked Zika to a surge in babies born with microcephaly, a birth defect that seriously limits a child’s mental and physical abilities. Brazilian officials have registered at least 2,782 cases this year, compared with just 147 in 2014 and 167 the year before.

At least 40 of the infants have recently died, and some Brazilian researchers warn that cases could multiply in the months ahead. Those babies who survive may face impaired intellectual development for the rest of their lives.

How does it spread?

The bite of an infected Aedes mosquito which is also known to carry yellow fever, dengue and chikungunya viruses. An infected mother can pass on the virus to her newborn child.

Through blood transfusion and sexual contact. Till now there is only one case of the virus spreading through sexual contact.

Dejailson Arruda holds his daughter Luiza at their house in Santa Cruz do Capibaribe, Pernambuco state, Brazil. (AP)

What are the symptoms?

Between three and 12 days after being bitten by a mosquito carrying the virus, three out of four people come down with symptoms including mild fever, rash, conjunctivitis, headaches and joint pain.

How to cure it?

There is no vaccine or medicine to prevent or treat it, and travellers to Latin America are advised to protect themselves by avoiding mosquito bites.

Geographic distribution

Outbreaks of Zika have occurred in areas of Africa, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and the Americas. In December 2015, Puerto Rico reported its first confirmed Zika virus case.

Luiza has her head measured by a neurologist at the Mestre Vitalino Hospital in Caruaru, Pernambuco state, Brazil. (AP)

Should India be worried?

“Because the Aedes species mosquitoes that spread Zika virus are found throughout the world, it is likely that outbreaks will spread to new countries,” the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says on its Zika webpage.

The total number of dengue cases in India in 2014 stood at 40,197. In 2015 September, New Delhi faced a worst dengue outbreak with more than 10,000 people getting affected and resulting in the death of more than 30 victims.

Thus, the virus could spread in India locally if an affected person travels from Brazil to India.

Read More | Puerto Rico reports first case of Zika virus, spread by mosquitoes

Read More | Brazil fears rare birth defects linked to mosquito-borne Zika virus

Source: CDC

(With agency inputs)