WHO declares emergency over virus

A “public health emergency of international concern” is how the World Health Organization recently classified the Zika virus.

At this point, the Zika virus has infected over 20 countries in Central and South America. Although Zika itself has yet to spread within the U.S., there have been reported cases of the virus from individuals who have traveled to infected countries and returned.

The Zika virus is transferred mainly through the bite of the Aedes aegypti mosquito. It may result in symptoms such as a rash, a fever or, for 80 percent of those infected, no symptoms at all.

“It is a very serious threat to pregnant women,” said Will Mackin, visiting assistant professor of biology.

This is because an infected pregnant women’s unborn child could develop microcephaly. Children born with this birth defect have smaller heads, leading to further developmental disabilities in areas such as speech or movement.

“I’m quite worried about the part of the world that we’re in,” Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told The Guilfordian. “The mosquito populations are not very high in the winter months, but they’re going to start to emerge in the southern part of the country as we move into the warmer months, so that’s when the risk period would begin.”

Hotez explained that the U.S. Gulf Coast is one region that could be at risk.

“There’s a strong link to poverty because people who live in poor conditions have poorer quality housing, window screens and environmental degradation,” he said. “Most of the world’s neglected tropical diseases actually occur among the poor living in wealthy countries.”

To reduce the spread of the Zika virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has posted travel warnings encouraging pregnant women to avoid infected countries. One of those countries is Brazil.

Barbara Blaschke, an Early College junior and Brazilian native, recently visited the country.

“Everyone’s talking about it,” she said. “It’s not just a concern for parents who are directly affected and their families, but it’s a concern for the whole country.”

Blaschke said that citizens are being advised to reduce the amount of standing water, a common place the Aedes mosquito breeds, and to take precautions in order to prevent Zika’s spread.

Despite the significant risks associated with the virus, no vaccine currently exists. Hotez indicated that it might take years for one to be available.

With the 2016 Summer Olympics scheduled to begin in Rio de Janeiro a few months from now, the spread of the Zika virus at a large venue is another concern. There will likely be an increased concentration of people in a region where the virus is already active.

Bryan Brendley, associate professor of biology, said that people will need to “be extra vigilant and making sure we try and take steps to protect ourselves from mosquito bites.”