Zika Virus: Another International Health Emergency After Last Year’s Ebola Epidemic

On February 1st, 2016, the World Health Organization declared an international public health emergency over the Zika virus, which is a virus with flu-like symptoms that is spread by mosquitos. The recent Zika epidemic was first reported in northwest Brazil in May of 2015, and it quickly spread to other regions of the country. At first it was believed that cases of dengue-fever had risen by 800%, but later on, doctors suggested that those cases may have been the first wave of the Zika epidemic. Brazil, alone, has recorded over 440,000 cases and there were over 1 million suspected incidents. The Brazilian Ministry of Health has also confirmed 4,180 cases of microcephaly. However, scientists are still unsure about the link between maternal Zika infection and microcephaly.

Infants with microcephaly are usually born with smaller sized heads. Being a neuro-developmental disorder, the normal life expectancy is reduced and the brain functions, especially the motor functions, are also limited. Even though there is no evidence, doctors suggest that the rising occurrence of microcephaly in Latin America is closely linked to the spread of the virus. With that said, it is difficult to stop the spread of Zika as many of those who are infected do not develop any symptoms. For instance, Marcelo Castro, Health Minister of Brazil, said that it is very problematic to deal with asymptomatic Zika cases.

The WHO assumes that Zika will affect around 4 million people in Latin America alone, but the epidemic will also disseminate to other continents. Earlier on, the spread of the Zika virus was discovered during the 1970s, and it appeared in several African and Asian countries where the tropical and subtropical climate is suitable for <em>aedes</em> mosquitos to survive. As a zoological disease, it was first discovered in a monkey in 1947 in Uganda, but it was a year before scientists confirmed its presence in mosquitos for the first time. Recently, there have also been confirmed cases outside of South America, such as in Australia and the United States.

There is no cure for the disease yet, but an Indian pharmaceutical company, Bharat Biotech International Limited has claimed that it had already developed a vaccine, but it has yet to be tested. As well, a French pharmaceutical company, Sanofi has also launched an effort to develop a vaccine against Zika, and they are using their expertise on Dengue-fever prevention for this.

During this global emergency, there is growing pressure on WHO, since many have criticized the organization for not reacting effectively to the West African Ebola crisis last year. However, despite international efforts to stop the Ebola epidemic, the virus had a death toll of more than 11,000 people and Sierra Leone had only been declared temporarily Ebola-free a few weeks ago. This time though, without a doubt, a global response is needed to stop the epidemic.