Officials caution the Zika virus is likely to spread to the United States.
A few weeks ago there was widespread panic as officials in Brazil urged women to delay pregnancy because of a scary uptick in cases of the Zika virus. Now, the mosquito-transmitted illness is spreading more quickly than initially predicted, and according to the World Health Organization (WHO), it’s likely to move “across all of the Americas” — something that’s truly frightening for anyone hoping to get pregnant soon.
The Zika virus has existed since at least the 1940s, but it’s only within the past year that it’s become a problem in Latin America. The virus — which is transmitted by Aedes Aegypti, the same mosquito that carries yellow fever — made its appearance in Brazil in May. Since then, the BBC reports it’s been found in 21 countries across North and South America and the Caribbean. The mosquitoes that transmit the virus are found everywhere in the Americas, except Chile and Canada, and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) — an office of the WHO — say they anticipate the Zika virus “will likely reach all countries and territories of the region where Aedes mosquitoes are found.”
The virus shows no symptoms in 80 percent of people who contract it, but can cause mild fevers, headaches, and conjunctivitis (pink eye). The real threat comes when the virus is contracted by pregnant women because it’s effects on unborn babies are much more severe. The Zika virus has been linked to thousands of babies being born with microcephaly, or a severely underdeveloped brain.
More than 4,000 cases of microcephaly have been reported in Brazil since the virus first emerged, prompting their government to urge women to avoid pregnancy. The Washington Post reports other countries have also taken extreme measures, including El Salvador, where officials have warned women to avoid pregnancy until 2018. Officials in Jamaica, Honduras, and Colombia have also urged women to delay pregnancy for at least the next several months. As for the U.S., CNN reports the CDC has issued a travel advisory for anyone visiting Latin America, South America, or the surrounding islands.
According to the Washington Post, infectious disease experts believe it will only be a matter of time before the Zika virus makes itself at home in our country. Per their predictions, outbreaks will likely begin in Florida and the Gulf states, but warming weather trends could help it spread throughout the Northern U.S. states as well. The only way to protect yourself is using insect repellant, wearing clothing that covers your body, avoiding stagnant bodies of water, and, of course, avoiding travel to affected areas. There have been about a dozen cases of the Zika virus confirmed in the U.S., but all of them were in people who’d recently traveled to an affected area.
In all likelihood, an outbreak of the Zika virus would be more mild in the U.S. because of our modern lifestyles and our ability to avoid mosquitos. Still, any transmission is scary, and it’s chilling to think of pregnant women contracting this illness. We don’t like to think of things like this happening so close to home, but the reality is that no one is immune to epidemics. Hopefully the attention the virus is getting can lead to a vaccine or a better method of treatment so expectant moms in all of these countries don’t have to live in fear.