ZIKA: The History, the Risks and the Scientific Developments

>>ZIKA: The History, the Risks and the Scientific Developments

ZIKA: The History, the Risks and the Scientific Developments

As it hits the news again the Zika virus, and its links to other conditions, have brought the scientific community together in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus.

The history of Zika

Scientists have been aware of the existence of the Zika virus since 1947.  While working in the Zika forest of Uganda, researchers identified the Zika strain from samples taken from a rhesus monkey, however records show Zika didn’t officially spread to humans until 1952.  Since then, there have been sporadic periods of recorded cases of Zika between 1960 – 1983, 2007 – 2009, and most recently early 2015 – current.  The most recent outbreaks were found to have originated in French Polynesia and Brazil, however to date, outbreaks have been recorded in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific.

Potential links to other conditions

Although the symptoms of the virus itself are relatively mild and short lived, Zika has been linked to two other conditions which have a longer lasting impact.

  1. Guillain-Barrè syndrome

This is a disorder that causes the human immune system to damage parts of its own peripheral nervous system. People affected by this syndrome are likely to recover, however it can take anywhere between six months to two years to do so. Weakness and tingling sensations in the legs is a common symptom of this disorder. An increase in the syndrome has been noted around the same time as virus outbreak. However whilst this disorder could be a side effect of Zika, the observed link has yet to be scientifically proven.

  1. Microcephaly

Perhaps more serious is the increase in babies being born with Microcephaly in Zika-affected areas.

Microcephaly is a medical condition in which the brain does not develop properly, resulting in a smaller than normal head (and therefore, a smaller than normal brain).  It is believed that newborns are at a higher risk of acquiring this condition if the mother has been infected with the Zika virus either during or prior to pregnancy, referred to as a vertically transmitted infection.  People with microcephaly often suffer life-long disabilities such as intellectual disabilities, reduced motor function and speech, and seizures.  As with Guillain-Barrè, a direct causal link between Zika and Microcephaly has yet to be scientifically proven, however the strength in the correlation between the two is increasing.

Scientific Developments

Disappointingly, there isn’t yet a definite cure for the Zika virus. Research findings and scientific developments are inching scientists closer to discovering a solution to combat Zika.  The development of a vaccine to counter the spread of the virus is being fostered at many different institutions across the world, with Manchester University being one of the institutions establishing a task force to address the challenge. Dr Tom Blanchard, Honorary Senior Lecturer/Consultant in Infectious Diseases, Manchester University, is heading up the vaccine project, and is confident of being able to deliver a result within the next 18 months.  Dr. Blanchard hinted about taking lessons from recent epidemic breakouts by referring to Ebola virus. Dr Blanchard added: “As we have seen in the case of Ebola there is now a real need to react quickly to fast spreading tropical diseases. Zika can cause serious illness, but it often has no visible symptoms, so a vaccine for those at risk is one of the most effective ways we have of combatting it.”

It is believed that a Zika virus vaccine may be able to combat many infectious diseases simultaneously, however only time will tell.  In the interim, education is our best defence.  UniTeam is running Zika Virus Awareness courses designed to increase knowledge about its symptoms and treatment practices. The course is suitable for healthcare professionals working in the UAE, and for people who are interested in updating their knowledge about Zika Virus Infection.