The Zika virus. It first came to national attention during the Rio Olympics, and it has – inevitably, considering Singapore’s status as a major transit hub – reached our shores with travel advisories being raised by countries such as the US, Australia, Taiwan and South Korea. Here are the details on the virus, what to do, and what precautions to take.
What is the Zika Virus?
According to the Ministry of Health:
Zika virus infection in humans has been reported since the 1950s. It is transmitted by the bite of infected Aedes mosquitoes (which bite in the daytime), identical to dengue. Zika is generally a mild disease. Zika may cause a viral fever similar to dengue or chikungunya, with fever, skin rashes, body aches and headache. However, most people infected with the Zika virus infection do not develop symptoms. There is no vaccine or specific anti-viral drugs.
The Zika virus was so named because it was first discovered in the Zika forest in Uganda. It was suspected that the virus had crossed species from another species to humans and then began spreading within the human population.
It is spread, as with dengue, yellow fever and chikungunya, by the Aedes mosquito. If the Aedes mosquito bites a person infected with the virus, they then transmit the virus when they bite the next person. The virus can also be sexually transmitted through unprotected sex.
Zika Symptoms & Effects
Only 1 in every 5 people manifest dengue-like symptoms such as mild fever, conjunctivitis, headache, joint pain and a rash. While the symptoms are fairly mild, it is the two side effects that are causing a worldwide panic: Guillain Barré Syndrome and Microcephaly.
Guillain Barré Syndrome is a rare autoimmune disorder that attacks part of the peripheral nervous system and causes temporary paralysis. However, the main health concern about the Zika virus is on unborn children and pregnant women. Since the advent of the outbreak, researchers have discovered an alarming link between the Zika virus and microcephaly. Microcephaly is a condition where a baby is born with an underdeveloped brain, causing them to have an abnormally small head. The severity of the condition varies from child to child but if the brain is so underdeveloped that it cannot regulate life-sustaining functions, it can lead to death. Children who survive this usually face intellectual disabilities and developmental delays.
The latest studies of Zika done on mice indicates that the impact of the Zika infection in other adults could be far more serious than previously thought, as the virus seems to attack immature cells in the adult brain – the same cells that are vital to learning and memory. This could result in behaviour similar to symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
Pregnant women or women who are planning to get pregnant are advised not to travel to the affected areas. In Singapore, cover up with light-coloured long-sleeve clothing and keep windows and doors closed to prevent mosquitoes from coming in. As there is no cure available as of yet, use insect repellent. Natural mosquito repellents are not as effective as those with DEET, but DEET potentially has side effects on pregnancy. As such, pregnant women should use repellent with low concentrations of 20 to 30% of DEET, and spray the repellent on clothes instead of bare skin. Don’t forget to follow the instructions and reapply the repellent every few hours. (Here's a great article that teaches parents how to protect your child from Zika)
Also, as the mosquitoes breed in still water, people should take care not to leave stagnant water in pails and bottles and to empty them out. The management of mosquito populations such as eliminating possible breeding sites is also another way of controlling the spread of the virus.