The mosquito-borne Zika virus is “spreading explosively” in the Americas and threatens to swamp almost every country in the hemisphere, even as the medical community is struggling to determine the array of maladies the disease can cause, the World Health Organization said Thursday.
The news comes as the virus, which is commonly associated with mild fevers and rashes, is increasingly being linked to malformations in thousands of newborns and to a poorly understood immune disorder that can lead to paralysis.
“A causal relationship between Zika virus infection and birth malformations and neurological syndromes has not yet been established, but is strongly suspected,” WHO Director General Margaret Chan told the body’s board of directors Thursday. “The possible links, only recently suspected, have rapidly changed the risk profile of Zika, from a mild threat to one of alarming proportions.”
In just a few short months, Zika has gone from being medical anomaly to a household word in the region. The WHO said the virus has been reported in 23 countries and is likely to spread to every nation in the hemisphere except Chile and Canada because of its cooler climate.
The United States has seen more than 30 cases of Zika in the last year — three of them in Florida. But all those cases were linked to people who had traveled to Zika-affected countries. On Thursday, there were reports of a new case in Massachusetts.
In Brazil, where the virus was first detected in May, as many as 100,000 people might be afflicted. In Venezuela, after months of silence, the government said there were 4,700 Zika cases. Civil society groups, however, claim that’s a white-wash, that hundreds of thousands have been sickened.
SPIKE IN COLOMBIA
On Thursday, Colombian Health Minister Alejandro Gaviria said there were about 20,000 reported cases of the Zika in the country. But more worrisome, was that the country has seen a dramatic spike in cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome that are thought to be Zika related.
Guillain-Barré causes the immune system to attack the nervous system, sometimes resulting in painful, tingling muscles or even paralysis. The syndrome has been spreading rapidly in Zika-prone areas on Colombia’s Caribbean coast and in the South, Gaviria said.
Just a few days ago, there were only 12 or 15 reported cases of Zika patients with Guillain-Barré, he said, but “that number is now in the hundreds.”
“This is the principal concern of the public health sector in Latin America,” Gaviria said of the virus. “I think it’s going to occupy about 80 percent of my time.”
Zika is carried by the Aedes mosquito, which also transmits dengue and chikungunya. Most often, the virus does little more than produce a fever, rash, joint pain and redness in the eyes. The Center for Disease Control says the illness is usually mild with symptoms that last about a week and that the need for hospitalization is “uncommon.”
But Zika seems to be producing more dramatic effects on this side of the world. In Brazil, more than 4,000 babies have been born with microcephaly, or unusually small heads. And Zika is the prime suspect.
“The increased incidence of microcephaly is particularly alarming, as it places a heart-breaking burden on families and communities,” Chan said.
The governments of Colombia and Brazil have been advising women to postpone their pregnancies during the outbreak.
The WHO has called for an emergency meeting next week to see if the virus requires a global response.
On Wednesday, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States agreed to form a common front to fight the virus. The first meeting of health officials is expected to take place next week in Uruguay.
“What’s important is to share experiences,” Gaviria said. “We have to realize that we’re not alone in this. That it’s a global problem that requires global solutions.”
The outbreak comes at a delicate time for Latin America and the Caribbean. Many countries (including Brazil and Colombia) are gearing up for pre-Lenten carnivals — raucous celebrations that draw many tourists and might be prime breeding ground for the Aedes mosquito.
In addition, Brazil will be hosting the Olympics in August. On Thursday, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach told the Associated Press his organization would be sending advice to all national Olympic committees, which can then tell athletes about safety guidelines.
Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes told the AP he didn’t believe Zika would affect the games. The event, he noted, will take place during the drier, cooler part of the year when controlling the mosquito population should be easier.
The virus was first isolated in 1947 from a monkey in the Zika forest of Uganda, the WHO said. For decades the disease was relegated to Africa and Asia and rarely made the jump to humans. In 2007, it was documented in the Pacific Islands, which saw four additional outbreaks from 2013-2014.
But the virus’ rapid spread and virulence since first being detected in Brazil last year makes the current situation “dramatically different,” Chang said.
The absence of vaccines, rapid diagnostic tests or specific treatments makes the region vulnerable.
“The level of concern is high, as is the level of uncertainty,” Chang said. “Questions abound. We need to get some answers quickly.”
Zika virus tips
▪ Anyone who is living in or travels to an area where the disease is endemic is susceptible.
▪ Symptoms — fever, rash, joint pain or conjunctivitis (red eye) — typically begin two to seven days after being bitten by an infected mosquito.
▪ Pregnant woman should consider postponing travel to infected areas.
▪ There is no vaccine or medicine to treat the virus.
▪ Anyone, including pregnant women, traveling to endemic countries should wear EPA-registered insect repellant. They should also wear clothing, treated with repellant, to cover arms and legs.
▪ If you are infected with Zika, get a lot of rest, drink fluids and take medicines such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, Panadol, Advil). Avoid aspirin.