• IPC 2017

The new challenge – Zika Virus

By Lekshmi Parmeswaran
In Health
March 7, 2016
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The increase in the microcephaly cases has made Zika the most dreaded virus to surface in the present times

zikaWho would have ever thought that a normal viral infection like any other would one day turn out to be a disaster of the gravest order? For countries across the world battling the dreaded Zika virus, there is nothing but uncertainty writ all over. First discovered in 1947 in Uganda, the disease spread by Zika was an illness restricted to the continents of Asia and Africa. Even as late as 2007, there were just 14 documented cases of Zika. The discomfort caused due to the viral attack is so mild that it does not even require any medical attention. The first eruption of the virus is recorded to have occurred in Micronesia in 2007 followed by French Polynesia in 2013-14. But it was only after its massive outbreak in Brazil in the preceding months that brought out the magnitude of the problem at hand. Since then, the disease has reached a total of 30 countries and is expected to cross more borders.

Spread by the same breed of mosquitoes, Aedes Agypti responsible for epidemics like dengue and chikungunya, Zika is in all probability among the biggest threats that the world had to face. It is a virus that has the potency to endanger the lives of future generations. If the evidences are anything to go by, then Zika is now believed to cause microcephaly in infants. In Brazil, the number of children born with this condition has seen a twenty fold increase in the last one year according to statistics released by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Zika is spreading a pall of gloom all across the world and there is every possibility India could be the next to be next big destination for the disease. Since the country falls in the Indian Ocean realm and has a tropical climate, it is amongst the most vulnerable regions for the viral attack. What makes the threat of Zika even greater for India is its ever growing population. With 51 births reported every one minute, the impact that an outbreak of Zika can have on the population is frightening. More than ever, therefore, it has become necessary to get an understanding of how big a threat the virus poses to the unborn children of the nation.

The real threat

The attack of Zika as such causes no lasting harm to the person infected. The symptoms of the disease include low grade fever accompanied by body pain, headache, rashes and conjunctivitis. Most often the person gets cured without any strong medication and the virus itself clears the blood stream in about two weeks. The problem arises when pregnant women comes under the clutch of this disease. It is now believed by many physicians across the world that once the virus enters the bloodstream of a pregnant woman it has the potential to arrest the cells from dividing which can permanently hamper the growth of the foetus.

Though experts around the world have been unable to back this theory with any scientific evidence, the sheer number of babies born with the congenital condition of microcephaly and the people affected with Gullian Barré give a clear indication on the dangers posed by the virus. The former is characterized by abnormally small head and incomplete brain development and the latter is caused due to sudden muscle weakness which happens as a result of peripheral nervous system getting damaged by the immune system. Both these conditions are permanent and the affected babies will face difficulties throughout their lives.

Another worrying fact about Zika is that it is spread not just through mosquito bites. It can also be spread through semen as it is believed that the virus can remain active inside the male body for a longer duration. This makes it difficult for any precautionary steps to be taken as both men and women are at equal risk. Even screening of the population cannot be done effectively as a person can still be a carrier of the disease in spite of showing no external symptoms.

This inability to put in place an effective mechanism to quarantine those affected is the biggest of all challenges faced by not just India but countries across the world. Even after the WHO declared Zika as a global public health emergency, the authorities in India is yet to view this disease with seriousness. The steps taken by the Ministry of Health are limited to the guidelines and the travel advisories that were issued.

Another cause of concern in the Indian context is that there are no specific tests that can ascertain the presence of the virus in the body. The WHO has already warned of a situation where Zika cases can be wrongly diagnosed as dengue since the symptoms are similar. When the tourist inflow to the country is taken into consideration, it is not wrong to assume that the virus would most likely enter the country. Also, the laxity on the part of the authorities to implement any measures to arrest the spread of the virus makes the overall situation extremely grave.

At present, the only defense against Zika is to protect oneself from mosquitoes bites. But that is not a lasting solution as mosquitoes can breed almost anywhere and it is impossible to be on guard all the time. The claims of the Indian biotech firm, Bharat Biotech International Limited, Hyderabad of having successfully developed two vaccines against Zika virus has definitely brought a ray of hope for those thousands affected. But it will take few years of clinical testing before it can be administered on a human. This vaccine has also brought to the fore the key issue of import of live virus by compromising on the biomedical ethics. For all these issues to get cleared, what is required is time and that is one thing the world doesn’t have at present.

No solution in sight?

The world is yet to find an answer on how to tackle the threat of the virus. What is required now is a collective effort to stop the spread of the disease. A global task force should be constituted by the WHO that will help in educating the countries on the adverse effects of this disease and the affected can be quarantined at the entry point of all the countries that are yet to be affected. It has also become necessary for all the nations to invest more in R&D activities so that a solution can be arrived at. The talks of introducing Genetically Modified Mosquitoes to crash the mosquito population of an area should be looked at in practical terms. If Zika is becomes a global epidemic, the world will be staring a future even the thought of which is dreadful. It is every nation’s responsibility to give a dignified life to its citizens and allowing the spread of a virus like Zika is the anti thesis of that very ideal.

MICROCEPHALY
Microcephaly is a condition where a baby’s head is much smaller than expected. During pregnancy, a baby’s head grows because the baby’s brain grows. Microcephaly can occur because a baby’s brain has not developed properly during pregnancy or has stopped growing after birth, which results in a smaller head size. Microcephaly can be an isolated condition, meaning that it can occur with no other major birth defects, or it can occur in combination with other major birth defects.

 

GUILLAIN-BARRÉ SYNDROME (GBS)
Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) is a rare disorder in which a person’s own immune system damages their nerve cells, causing muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis. GBS can cause symptoms that usually last for a few weeks. Most people recover fully from GBS, but some people have long-term nerve damage. In very rare cases, people have died of GBS, usually from difficulty breathing. In the United States, for example, an estimated 3,000 to 6,000 people develop GBS each year on average, whether or not they received a vaccination