January 28, 2016
The Zika virus, a mosquito transmitted pathogen indigenous to Africa, has been spreading throughout the non-immune Western Hemisphere since May 2015. Zika is spread by mosquitoes, and in most people causes a rash, fever, and other non-specific symptoms. Things get a lot more serious when pregnant women become infected: the virus can spread to the fetus, causing microcephaly and vision and hearing defects.
Currently, twenty-two countries in the Western Hemisphere- including the US and Denmark - have confirmed cases. At this point, Latin America and the Caribbean have been subject to the greatest virus spread, and Brazil has been hit the worst: in Brazil alone, more than one million people are affected and almost 4,000 babies have been born with microcephaly caused by in utero Zika infection. The Brazilian government has deployed over 200,000 troupes to help distribute insect repellant and eradicate mosquitoes (the vector of the disease) and researchers are looking into the possibility that the Olympics might provide the virus another opportunity to spread. El Salvador, along with other countries, has taken drastic measures, recommending that women refrain from becoming pregnant until 2018 (a move that has called increased attention to and public questioning of the country’s widespread bans on abortion).
Pregnant women in the United States are advised not to travel to a growing list of destinations where the virus is prevalent. While the CDC has stated that widespread transmission in the United States is unlikely, they have recommended that all infants born to mothers who have traveled to or lived in areas experiencing outbreaks be tested for the virus. Awareness of the Zika virus remains directly important for U.S. medical providers. The virus poses a risk for localized spread in parts of the U.S. and has been reported in returning travelers. To date, there is no vaccine for the virus.