To Panic or Not To Panic: The Zika Virus

With the recent outbreak of the Zika virus in the Americas, Michael O’ Sullivan investigates the virus’s dangers.


Unless you’ve been living under a medium sized mountain for the past month or so, you’ve probably heard of the dreaded Zika virus, currently sweeping its way across the Americas on a wave of infectious hysteria.

Many will have seen the startling images of infants born with skull defects, supposedly as a direct result of the virus. These pictures, coupled with the news that the virus can apparently be passed on via sexual contact and that the CDC in the USA have issued a Level 2 warning for travel to affected countries, have led to many comparing the virus to the recent Ebola outbreak.

Despite the endless morass of viral name dropping across the media currently, actual credible information into the effects of the virus are incredibly hard to come by.

So what exactly is the Zika Virus? First discovered in the 1940s in Rhesus monkeys in Uganda, the virus later spread to the human population but was largely contained to the African continent and South-east Asia, until a 2007 outbreak in Micronesia, during which nobody died. The virus usually takes the form of a fever, similar to Dengue and Yellow fever, resulting in intense flu-like symptoms and a rash. In the majority of cases, this is the extent of its effects. Most people recover within a week with no lingering issues, and there have been studies that have shown natural immunity in humans to the virus in areas where it has already been a problem for years.

There is strong evidence, however, that the virus can cause Guillain-Barré syndrome. This is a nasty auto-immune disorder in which the body mistakes its own peripheral nerve cells for an invading organism and begins to attack them. Victims of this syndrome start developing pain in their feet and hands before progressing to severe muscle weakness in the legs, arms and neck. In severe cases, the syndrome can cause respiratory failure.

As is the case with most tropical viral infections, it is carried by mosquitoes, and infection is usually the direct result of being bitten.

As to where the recent hysteria has developed, the virus began appearing in Brazil in early 2015. Attempts to control its spread were unsuccessful and it has now been detected all over Southern and Central America. Recent deaths from Guillain-Barré syndrome in Columbia have been linked to the virus and since the initial outbreak in Brazil, there has been a strong upswing in babies born with the microcephaly birth defect. Though there is no concrete science to back up the link, the sudden upswing in cases does coincide heavily with the viruses spread. It is this that has led to the recent spate of warnings about the disease.

Microcephaly is a defect where the skull fails to form correctly and ends up being too small. This can lead to multiple complications ranging from stunted mental development, frequent seizures and in many cases, death. It is understandable that the apparent link between the virus and this developmental disorder has many scared, and is the reason that warnings have been issued for pregnant women not to travel to affected countries.

On top of all of this, the virus was recently found in the semen of an infected man. This indicated that the virus may also be sexually transmitted. The constant issue with Zika however, is that we just don’t know enough yet to be sure.

Zika is poorly understood and we are nowhere near the development of a cure. Because its symptoms can be relatively minor except in a small number of cases, it has largely skirted under the radar. Viral infections such as Ebola have much higher death rates and consequently, have much more time invested into their eradication.

At this point in time, Zika is a cause for concern. However, the current hysteria is somewhat unfounded. It is unlikely that anyone is going to contract the virus unless they live in an area where its carrier mosquito is also located, and it is also true that good medical facilities and quarantine procedures like those found in most Western countries will keep any infections to a minimum. As nasty as Zika can be, you should probably be more worried about the cheap deli meat you had for lunch than catching the disease.