Is the Zika virus the new Latin American Ebola? WHO’s to say.
Twelve independent specialists to the World Health Organization – including experts in epidemiology, public health and infectious diseases from the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa – convened today Monday 29th in a telephone conference in Geneva to begin to decide whether to declare the current Zika virus outbreak a global emergency. The WHO said a news briefing will be held on Tuesday afternoon at the earliest. The United Nations agency came under fire last year when it took five months to declare Ebola outbreak in West Africa an emergency. “I have all confidence that they will declare this as a public health emergency,” director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a co-discoverer of the Ebola virus Peter Piot told BBC Radio.
The Zika virus is thought to have arrived in Brazil during the 2014 World Cup. At least 1.5 million people are estimated to have been infected in the South American country, and over 4,100 suspected cases of microcephaly have been reported in connection to the virus. This has lead to widespread panic among pregnant Brazilian women. “The public doesn't know everything about the Zika virus. We don't know exactly the consequences of the virus, only the microcephalus,” Maria Fernanda Laudisio de Lucca of São Paulo said. “It's very frightening. I'm worried my daughter will have microcephaly,” Elisangela Barros said. “My neighborhood is poor and full of mosquitoes, trash and has no running water. Five of my neighbors have Zika.”
Authorities are concerned about a potential spike in illegal abortions, of which about 1 million a year already occur in Brazil. “Zika is a health catastrophe and a terrifying menace for pregnant women,” pediatrician and public health expert in Rio de Janeiro Daniel Becker said. “People will look for an abortion.” In light of this, women's rights organizations are advocating legal abortion in the case of women with Zika, and a group of researchers, activists and lawyers plans to petition the Supreme Court to allow abortions under the same circumstances, a measure already taken by the health ministry of Colombia, where over 2,100 pregnant women are infected with the virus
In spite of all of the above, both the Carnival and the Summer Olympics will proceed as planned in Brazil. In fact, a pre-Carnival was held in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo over the weekend. Nevertheless, tourism in the affected countries is expected to take a hit. Sixty-four percent of Americans would cancel their travel plans to areas where there is active transmission of the Zika virus, according to a survey by travel risk manager On Call International. Moreover, 69% of all female respondents said they would cancel their travel plans and 37% of women aged 25 to 34 years old were the most likely to cancel their trip.
Speaking of the United States, health officials agree that a Zika outbreak in the U.S. is unlikely. “We have already seen the Zika virus in travelers returning from places where Zika is spreading, including, sadly, one woman in Hawaii who delivered an infant with microcephaly after being infected with the virus in Brazil last year,” CDC director Tom Frieden wrote in an editorial for CNN. “We will certainly see more travelers returning to the United States with Zika after being infected in parts of the world where the virus is spreading. But the big question many people have is whether Zika will spread widely within the United States.” And according to Dr. Frieden, the answer is that “most people in the contiguous United States are unlikely to ever come into contact with the Zika virus,” although “two groups need particular attention.”
Those groups are “people living in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Caribbean or Pacific territories, and Central and South America.” The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci also said that “Zika is not coming up the coast so you don’t have to worry” while addressing the Economic Club of Washington, D.C.
The symptoms of the Zika virus include fever, rash, joint and muscle pain, headache, and vomiting. There is no vaccine – nor will there be one before several years according to most experts – or specific treatment. Therefore management of the disease focuses on relieving the symptoms. For instance, getting plenty of rest, drinking fluids to prevent dehydration, and taking acetaminophen or paracetamol to manage fever and pain.