WHO has now officially declared it a global public health emergency.
If you’ve been keeping up with the news at all in the recent weeks, you’ve likely heard reports about the Zika virus — a mosquito-borne illness resulting in thousands of babies being born with underdeveloped and abnormally small brains.
In fact, the outbreak is so bad that Latin American governments have urged women to avoid getting pregnant until 2018, but many people in the West likely assumed the virus wouldn’t become a dire threat in North America.
Unfortunately, the World Health Organization has some bad news for all citizens of the world: the organization recently deemed the Zika virus a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).
Even more unsettling, WHO has only declared a public health emergency on three other occasions since the PHEIC classification was established back in 2007 — in 2009 during the swine flu epidemic, and two during 2014 for polio and the Ebola outbreak.
The organization warns that, without intervention, as many as 4 million people in the Americas will be at risk from Zika by the end of 2016.
The virus is usually transmitted by mosquitoes, but to add salt to the wound, researchers have now declared that Zika can be sexually transmitted — and the first case was reported in Dallas, Texas.
"A person who recently traveled to an area with Zika virus transmission returned to the United States and developed Zika-like symptoms," the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in a statement. "The person later tested positive for Zika, along with their sexual partner, who had not traveled to the area."
Researchers don’t have a definitive answer on how this case of Zika was transmitted, but they hypothesize that it was spread via semen. Further testing will need to be done in order to confirm.
"Now that we know Zika virus can be transmitted through sex, this increases our awareness campaign in educating the public about protecting themselves and others," said Zachary Thompson, the director of the Dallas County Health and Human Services (DCHHS), in a press release. "Next to abstinence, condoms are the best prevention method against any sexually-transmitted infections."
Although the virus has been declared a global health emergency, most people wouldn’t suffer much worse than a week of rash, fever, and conjunctivitis if anything — about 80 percent of the cases have been reported with no side effects at all.
However, it’s a different story if you’re pregnant. Experts have observed a strong association between the Zika virus and microcephaly — the technical term for the neurological disorder that renders newborns with abnormally small skulls and severe brain damage. Researchers are working to determine whether Zika does in fact increase the risk of microcephaly and other neurological birth defects.
“Based on what we know now, the best way to avoid Zika virus infection is to prevent mosquito bites AND to avoid exposure to semen from someone who has been exposed to Zika virus or has been ill from Zika virus infection,” the CDC wrote.
Avoiding mosquito bites sounds easier said than done since we can’t exactly control the little pests, but the CDC has put together specific guidelines for prevention. You can access them here.
Editor's note (April 28): The article has been updated to reflect that the relationship between Zika infection and microcephaly is only suspected, not proven. We appologise for any confusion this may have caused.