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Zika virus declared a global emergency

Tuesday 2nd February 2016
UK doctors need to be looking out for signs of the Zika virus in patients. Image: jonas unruh
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The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared a global emergency as the Zika virus spreads throughout the Caribbean and southern and Central America, leading to complications in thousands of pregnancies.

Since October last year, more than 4,000 babies in Brazil alone have been born with microcephaly, which shows itself in the small size of their heads, caused by abnormal development of their brains in the womb.

In the UK, Public Health England has advised pregnant women not to travel overseas as the virus spreads and doctors strive to discover the link between Zika and microcephaly.

What is the Zika virus?

Zika is a virus that is spread through aedes mosquito bites, which are not found in the UK, but are a common sight in parts of America and the Caribbean. Their bite can cause the infection finding its way to a person's bloodstream and leading to the development of Zika. For pregnant women, this is particularly concerning, as it can adversely affect the development of their unborn babies.

A global emergency

WHO has declared the spread of the Zika virus to be as serious as the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and is urging all pregnant women to remain in their own country until it is stabilised.

At present, there is no vaccine available to immunise people against the Zika virus, with the only way to avoid catching it being to steer clear of the mosquito that carries the infection. It cannot be passed from person to person, but it has resulted in potentially life-threatening consequences for some newborns.

WHO has warned that the condition is likely to "spread explosively" throughout the US over the coming weeks and months, with doctors striving to find an effective immunisation method to keep the illness at bay.

In several cases, it is thought that Zika has lead to the onset of Guillain-Barre syndrome in patients, leaving them paralysed.

Signs to look out for

Doctors and patients alike need to make sure they are aware of the symptoms of the Zika virus, which include irritated skin, rashes, a fever, pain in the joints, muscle and eye pain, and conjunctivitis or red eyes.

For women who have been in an environment where mosquitoes were present, these symptoms could also indicate the onset of malaria, meaning immediate medical attention should be sought.

Dr Dipti Patel, director at the UK's National Travel Health Network and Centre, commented: "We strongly advise all travellers to avoid mosquito bites and urge pregnant women to consider avoiding travel to areas reporting active Zika transmission.

"If travel to these areas is unavoidable, or they live in areas where Zika virus transmission is occurring, they should take scrupulous insect bite avoidance measures both during daytime and nighttime hours.

"Women who are planning to become pregnant should discuss their travel plans with their healthcare provider to assess the risk of infection with Zika virus and receive advice on mosquito bite avoidance measures."

Written by James Puckle

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