Mosquito-Borne Virus May be Linked to Neurological Birth Disorder

Director-General of the World Health Organization Margaret Chan (second from right) addresses the WHO Executive Board's special session on the Ebola emergency. Chan will convene an emergency session February 1, 2016, to discuss whether or not Zika will be elevated to a global health crisis. Image Courtesy of Violaine Martin/UN Photo.

Janani Ravikumar
Staff Writer

A new mosquito-borne virus has sparked worldwide concern because of its rapid spread around the globe, and its possible connection to a neurological birth disorder.

Zika virus is a condition spread primarily by mosquito bites. According to the Center for Disease Control, only about one in five people who become infected with the virus actually develop symptoms. These symptoms are relatively mild, lasting only two to seven days, and include fever, rash, joint pain, red eyes, muscle pain and headache.

However, according to the World Health Organization, large outbreaks in French Polynesia and Brazil in 2013 and 2015 respectively have led to an increase in infections in the general public. In Brazil, there has also been an increase in infants born with a neurological disorder called microcephaly, which results in babies being born with abnormally small heads. Increasing evidence suggests that Zika virus is linked to this birth disorder.

Since November, there have been nearly 4,000 cases of microcephaly in babies born in Brazil to women infected with Zika virus during their pregnancies, CNN reports. Other countries in Latin America have also seen cases of microcephaly in newborns; one baby in the United States was born with the condition after his mother returned from Brazil.

Microcephaly can result from the baby’s brain not developing properly during pregnancy or stopping to grow after birth. Depending on how severe the condition is, babies can have a range of other problems such as seizures, developmental delay, intellectual disability, balancing probelms, feeding problems, hearing loss and vision problems. Microcephaly is a lifelong condition and there is no known cure or standard treatment for it, aside from managing other health problems that stem from it.

Currently, Zika virus is locally transmitted in Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Cape Verde, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, Suriname, Samoa and Venezuela. So far, the only cases in the United States are from infected travelers returning from these countries. Whether these imported cases could lead to locally transmitted sicknesses is unknown.

Since there is no treatment or vaccine available for Zika virus, the only way to prevent it is to avoid traveling to areas with an active infestation. If you do visit such an area, use an EPA-approved repellent over sunscreen, wear long pants, as well as long-sleeved shirts and sleep in air-conditioned, screened rooms to protect yourself against mosquito bites. Those already infected with Zika virus can avoid spreading it to others by avoiding further mosquito bites during the first week of illness.

According to Extreme Tech, genetically engineered mosquitoes could halt the spread of the virus. By producing male mosquitoes with “self-limiting genes,” all offspring resulting from these males mating with wild female mosquitoes would perish soon after birth, resulting in a rapid drop in the mosquito population. In places where mosquito-transmitted infections are a serious threat, this could be the most viable solution.

Meanwhile, researchers around the world are working to create a vaccine for Zika virus. Until a vaccine is developed, however, the only way to prevent infection is to eliminate contact with mosquitoes.