By Angelo Piro
The total number of countries and territories affected by the Zika virus has now risen to 23, as the Wall Street Journal confirms cases of the disease in Ecuador and Peru. The virus “is now spreading explosively,” reports World Health Organization Director General Margaret Chan.
The virus, which has infected between 3 and 4 million people over the last 12 months, will likely spread to all countries in the Americas except Canada and Chile, where the Aedes mosquito cannot be found.
The Zika virus is a new epidemic in the Americas, with the first cases reported in Brazil in May 2015. While the mosquito-borne disease is nonthreatening to most people, with most patients showing either no symptoms or mild symptoms such as fever, rash, and fatigue, the virus is of grave concern to pregnant women.
Though link has not been confirmed, babies born to pregnant women infected with Zika have been diagnosed with certain birth defects, such as microcephaly, characterized by an abnormally small head, and Guillain-Barre syndrome, a severe neurological condition.
The disease was noticed only after a severe spike in reported cases of microcephaly in Brazil.
In addition to cases in Central and South America, the virus has also been reported in people in the United States, the United Kingdom, and India who had recently travelled to affected countries.
While the outbreak of the disease in the U.S. is rather unlikely, according to an expert interviewed by CNN, the virus is carried by the same mosquitoes that carry dengue fever, of which there has recently been an outbreak in Hawaii.
The spread of the Zika virus has become so severe that the WHO called for an emergency committee meeting on February 1 to assess the situation and recommend measures for treatment and prevention. They will also attempt to gain some clarity about the reality and implications of the disease, and communicate the information to affected countries.
“There is a lot of uncertainty about some of the real basics about this disease,” said Dr. Bruce Aylward, a WHO expert.
In response, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently issued a travel warning for all affected countries, especially warning pregnant women.
The outbreak has spurred new developments in fighting the virus and other mosquito-borne diseases. A U.K. company, Oxitec, has developed a genetically modified version of the mosquito species that carries Zika, among other diseases, that proves to reduce the species population by over 90 percent in tested areas in Brazil and Panama. There is currently no treatment or vaccine for the virus.
The threat of the Zika virus has also overshadowed the upcoming Summer Olympic Games, which are to be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in less than 180 days. NPR reports that the International Olympic Committee is doing all they can to work with the government of Brazil to protect visitors from the virus. The mayor of Rio is also playing down the threat, claiming that the winter months are less likely to be as dangerous. The virus has been another hurdle in Brazil’s preparations to overcome, as it already faces a large shortfall in ticket sales that have necessitated a $500 million budget cut, according to the Associated Press.