What is the Zika virus and who’s at risk? (Infographic)

29 Jan 2016

The latest health scare to get global attention in the media is a mosquito-borne virus known as the Zika virus that has struck many nations in South and Central America, but what is it exactly?

First off, it goes without saying that this is a tense time for many trying to figure out what exactly is going on.

Even today (29 January), there have been reports of a suspected case of the virus here in Ireland, with Dr Graham Fry of the Irish Tropical Medical Bureau saying that a patient came to him a few months ago with symptoms of what would now be likely diagnosed as the virus.

What is the Zika virus?

Believed to have originated from the Zika forest of Uganda as far back as 1947, the virus is spread through bites from infected Aedes mosquitos and had never been reported outside of outbreaks on Pacific islands until May last year, when it was recorded for the first time in northern Brazil.

Since then, however, it has spread considerably across much of South and Central America, with estimates from the WHO suggesting the number of cases worldwide could grow to 4m.

What are the symptoms?

Unlike the horror seen during the height of the Ebola outbreak in west Africa last year, the Zika virus is on the complete opposite end of the scale, with no reported lethal cases of the virus, which, in the majority of cases, doesn’t even present itself with visible symptoms.

However, when it does, it shows itself usually within a few days as something similar to a fever with conjunctivitis for at most a week.

The initial infection is the least of the potential complications to come from it, however, with the real reason for its newsworthiness being the developing link between children being born with small heads and brain damage – known as microcephaly – and women who contracted the Zika virus.

While it cannot be completely confirmed by health authorities, the threat of the virus has been considered serious enough that some governments in Latin America have asked women to not get pregnant for at least a few months, or two years in the extreme case of El Salvador.

Zika virus testing

Brazilian authorities testing stagnant water. Image via Agência Brasília/Flickr

Is Ireland under threat?

In Ireland’s case – and anywhere with generally cold climates – there should be little reason to fear an outbreak due to it being mosquito-borne in nature and not transmissible through other means, like touch or bodily fluids, like sweat.

While there is no cure for the virus currently available, anyone who does contract it is being advised to rest well and drink plenty of fluids, like for many common ailments.

The health authorities in Ireland are likely to be vigilant for any suspected cases from patients who have recently been to the Latin America region, but not to the same extent as that seen with something like the Ebola virus.

What’s being done to stop it?

Well, like any mosquito-borne disease, the WHO advises wearing protective clothing and mosquito repellent for those who can wear them during their peak appearances during the day, but on a national level it is suggesting making sure there is no standing water left near a home or for garbage to accumulate.

Of course, this is going to be a bit tricky in nations where regular garbage pick-ups and fresh water are not readily available at hand, but the WHO – and its smaller sibling the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO) – will likely help nations attempt to limit the Aedes mosquito populations.

Zika infographic

Aedes mosquito image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic