History of the virus

In its fact sheet published this month, Who describes the Zika virus as “a disease caused by a virus transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes”. It was first identified in 1947 in Uganda where rhesus monkeys were found with the virus. Five years later, it was identified in humans in Uganda and Tanzania. In May 2015, the Pan American Health Organization (Paho) was alerted for the first time about the first confirmed Zika infection in Brazil.


Transmission, signs and symptoms

The CDC says that the Zika virus is primarily transmitted through the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito. Other means include spreading through infected blood transfusion and sexual contact. Published on UP’s official website, Prof. Leo Braack and Prof. Marietjie Venter of UP’s Department of Medical Virology describe the symptoms of Zika as fever, rash, and joint pain, adding that, “Most infected people will, in fact, not even feel sick as the symptoms are so mild.” The complications of the virus are more evident in its recent link to cases of microcephaly, a condition in which “babies are born with reduced brain size. This is a potentially disastrous condition which threatens younger generations,” say Prof. Braack and Prof. Venter.


Treatment and prevention

There is currently no vaccine to prevent Zika. However, protection from the virus is of great importance. The Who urges people to use insect repellent, wear clothing that covers as much of their body as possible, and to use screen barriers and mosquito nets during the evenings. Great emphasis is also placed on emptying, covering or cleaning containers which hold water, where mosquitos can breed. The Who cautions travellers especially. In treating symptoms of the virus, the CDC encourages people to take long rests, keep hydrated, and take appropriate medicine to reduce fever and pain. The CDC say that, “Victims very rarely die from Zika.”


Is South Africa at risk?

Prof. Braack and Prof. Venter say that, “The South African public should be made aware that there is no cause for panic in this country.” They went further in describing how the “Zika virus has never been diagnosed in people anywhere in Africa south of Uganda.” The Aedes mosquito has been present in South Africa for many decades, yet there is no reason to worry. According to Prof. Braack and Prof. Venter, “Arboviruses (viruses transmitted by arthropods) usually have an animal that functions as an amplifier host.” The virus subsequently multiplies to a high enough level to provide a source of infection. “This is either absent in South Africa or the virus has never been introduced to a susceptible amplifier host here,” they conclude.


A way forward

Prof. Braack and Prof. Venter explain that, “Every South African living in the northern parts of the country, including Gauteng, will almost certainly have had numerous bites from Aedes aegypti.” This results in no more than “a temporary itch”.

Through enhanced surveillance of the virus, training through its collaborating centres, and preparing recommendations for clinical care of victims of the virus, the Who supports countries to ultimately control the Zika virus.


Illustration: Asiphe Dlulane.

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