File photo: A scientist works in a lab. Bernard Gospic/THE VARSITY

About a year ago, the Zika virus broke out in Brazil. While your social media feed may have been inundated with posts on the Zika virus, the majority of people still aren’t quite sure what it is. Quickly after the May 2015 outbreak in Brazil, the virus was transferred to neighbouring countries, including Mexico and a number of others in South America.

After the media attention dedicated to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the resulting fear of it metastasizing into a global epidemic, the Zika virus is being treated with extreme caution. At the moment, many experts are unsure of the full extent of the danger.

What is the Zika virus?

The Zika virus is part of the Falviviridae virus family and is transmitted to humans via misquitos, most often by the Aedes Aegypti.

The Zika virus is closely related to a number of other mosquito-transmitted diseases such as West Nile, dengue, and yellow fever. Zika causes a number of symptoms, collectively known as ‘Zika fever’, which is not fatal. In adults, the virus causes headaches, rashes, fever, and joint pains.

Where did the Zika virus come from?

Like Ebola, Zika was already known to scientists before its most recent outbreak. The virus causing the disease was first isolated from a monkey, the rhesus macaque, in the Zika Forest of Uganda in 1947. Not too long after, the virus was isolated from humans in Nigeria in 1954.

Why are people worried?

When dealing with diseases that have the potential to become pandemics, it is always best to tread with extreme caution. Although the symptoms of the disease in  adults are mild in comparison to other viral diseases (like Ebola or HIV), recent evidence has demonstrated a significant link between mothers infected during the first trimester of pregnancy and microcephaly — the underdevelpment of the brain — in their newborn children.

For this reason, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has issued travel warnings for pregnant women from a large number of countries in the Caribbean and South America, two areas where Zika cases have been reported. As of Tuesday January 26, the CDC also added the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Dominican Republic to the list.

The near global nature of the disease is becoming particularly concerning. The World Health Organization (WHO) has advised that the virus has the potential to spread to every country in the Americas.

Should Canadians be concerned?

On January 28, 2016, the WHO  declared that they believe the virus has crossed over into common mosquitoes, including those that live in Canada. Whether or not this recent announcement is cause for concern still remains unclear.

So is the media panic really necessary?

For the most part, people are still concerned about the dangers of infectious disease after having seen the fear of Ebola spread faster globally than the disease itself.

At the same time, the link between the disease and microcephaly in children definitely makes it something to be worried about. We also lack drugs, significant research, and a vaccine for the Zika virus. If the disease really gets out of hand, then we — and most importantly, our infants — will  be left vulnerable.

Realistically, an excessive response may be the best response at the moment. Many critics have pointed out that the 2014 Ebola outbreak was caused by the lack of a serious response to earlier Ebola outbreaks, like the one responsible for 254 deaths in Zaire in 1995. It was the lack of a swift response to finding a clinical vaccine that allowed it to redevelop into the 2014 outbreak. For that reason, global apprehension and awareness are actually vital.

At the end of the day, Zika virus has the potential to be very damaging to newborns and to infect many more in the Americas. For these reasons alone, the Zika virus — like any infectious disease should be treated with extreme caution.

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