The Zika virus
The Zika virus primarily spreads via mosquitoes as a vector or sexual transmission. While only 20% of patients with the infection develop symptoms such as fever, rash and joint pain, the most worrying trouble is the virus’ ability to be transmitted vertically from a pregnant woman to her unborn child.
This issue became particularly worrying as thousands of newborns were born with microcephaly, a birth defect which has since been linked to the infection. Unfortunately, there are no known vaccines or treatments against the Zika virus. The best way to protects oneself is by taking steps to prevent getting bitten and to avoid travelling to high risk countries.
Tracing Zika back to when it started
The first cases of the Zika virus infection were first discovered in monkeys in Uganda circa 1947. Seven years later, the first human case was reported in Nigeria. Ever since then, the virus has laid low until May 2015 where a sudden outbreak of Zika in Brazil occurred and proceeded to pandemic levels of infection rates. Within just four month of the 2016, there were 170,535 reported cases of the incident.
Serious spotlight began to be casted on the earlier thought to be innocuous Zika pandemic when thousands of pregnant women with Zika infection gave birth to babies with microcephaly. At the height of the infection, the World Health Organisation even initiated a worldwide emergency to quell the spread of the Zika virus. The infection could not have come at a worse time as Brazil was then host to the summer 2016 Olympics, which saw a marked increase of air traffic in and out of the country that served as a prime mode of spreading the disease to the other continents.
Over in Malaysia and Singapore, there were 341 cases of Zika in Singapore and eight cases in Malaysia as of September 2016. Fortunately, immediate vector control measures were taken by the local governments to help put a stop to the spread of the Zika virus.
Malaysia, which had seen cases of Zika infection as early as 1969, did not have a significant number of cases, likely due to an immunity resulting from the disease outbreak four decades ago. Ultimately, just like the rest of the world, cases of Zika infection steadily decreased to a point where they are no longer a public health emergency.
Citing a sharp drop in the number of cases, the Brazilian government has decided to put an end to the national health emergency. From the month of January to April in 2017, only 7,911 cases were reported. This was a 95% reduction over the previous year and a positive indication that the worst had come to pass. Similarly, the World Health Organisation had lifted its own public health emergency back in November 2016.
Researchers and healthcare professionals are not exactly sure what to attribute to the sudden decline in the number of cases. Professor David Heyman, chairman of the WHO’s emergency committee for the Zika outbreak, chalked the occurrence down to the development of herd immunity within the population. With no real treatment or vaccine available, those affected by the virus naturally developed an immunity towards the infection. As of now, there is unlikely to be any death attributed to ZIka infection and the number of new cases is estimated to continue to decline.
While the worst is behind us and the present Zika crisis has come to an end, there are many lessons to be learnt from this episode. For one, we should be wary that a mutated strain of the Zika virus may appear and cause an epidemic similar to this episode.
As such, continuous research on the Zika virus should continue to help develop a cure or vaccine for this pathogen. It is only a matter of time before the next big epidemic occurs and there is a need to improve upon existing crisis management solutions so that the unduly loss of human lives can be prevented. MIMS
After Kedah’s spike in cases, MOH Malaysia warns of rising dengue threat
Third new Zika cluster identified in Singapore
Stepping up the fight against infections: Two new vaccines pharmacists should know