Health Corner: The Zika Virus

Get The Latest On The Newest Player In The Viral Game

So listen up my little virology experts, today I am presenting my latest installment of the Health Corner series brought to you by yours truly, a student trying to avoid studying.  Instead of digging into the 10 articles I have to read for my molecular immunology class (bleh), I will give you the 411 on the epidemic that is taking the world by storm.

Is it the latest round of Trump vs Clinton (or in that case Trump vs anyone)? Nope. Is it which Kardashian did something krazy this week? Nope.  It’s better.

I present to you the hottest thing to drop since Kanye’s announcement for president (#Yeezus2020): The Zika virus.  

Before I get into the specifics of the Zika virus, let me tell you a little bit about viruses in general.

Everyone knows that in our body we have DNA. What you might not know is that there is an alternate form of DNA that is sometimes used, called RNA. Think of it this way, if DNA is your sweatshirt, then RNA is the thread used to knit your sweatshirt. They constantly change from one form to another depending on what stage of replication your cells are in.

Viruses can have many forms to be most effective. Some are in DNA form and some are in RNA form. 

To understand how viruses work, you also need to understand a little bit of how your immunity works.

Our body’s immunity is like an army. When everything is normal (meaning no infection), the soldiers (T-cells, B-cells, etc) are basically chilling in their base camp. However, even though the majority are just chilling, you always need someone to be patrolling in case of a surprise attack.  Once the invader (this time the Zika virus) arrives, you sound the alarm (#Sh*tJustGotReal).

All the soldiers will then be deployed to go fight the battle and win the war. However, sometimes the virus is really smart and knows exactly where the soldiers will go. It’s as if they are wearing camouflage gear to blend in with your other cells. All the while, they are sneaking into your cells, hijacking them, using their machinery to replicate and then exploding with brand new viral particles. Because they are replicating exponentially, once your body’s soldiers manages to capture them, the infection is already out of control. Your body is now losing the battle. But don’t worry just yet, because they haven’t lost the war.  This is about the time when you start having symptoms. 

You’re probably wondering what the point is of having an immune system if the viruses are able to escape? Well, the truth is that your immune system catches 99% of all the nasty things that manage to sneak in. The viruses that do actually make it through the security check points are the “top of their class” in deviousness. 

So, now onto the topic at hand.

What is the Zika Virus?

Last time, we spoke about the flu, aka the illness caused by the influenza virus. The Zika virus is part of a different group of viruses called the Flaviviridae group.  Why does it have this weird Latin name? Well, flavus in Latin means yellow, and the original name given to these types of viruses was yellow-fever virus.  It is an RNA virus which causes an illness similar to Dengue fever.

How can you get it?

Certain types of mosquitos, the Aedes type, can transmit the Zika virus (as if they needed another reason to be hated…). Following the saying, “all good things come in three’s”, this type of mosquito can also transmit the Dengue and Chikungunya viruses (#3for1deal).

It had been noted at first that there was no human-human transmission of the virus. However, there are new discoveries being made that show that the Zika virus could potentially be transmitted sexually as well (although quite rare).

Image source: BBC News

Image source: BBC News

What Happens?

The infected mosquito will bite you, drink your blood (their blood meal) and in return, as a parting gift, will leave you with the virus.  

The symptoms usually appear 3-7 days after being bitten by a mosquito (so basically just when you were starting to relax and enjoy your vacay). Common symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain, or red eyes. Other symptoms include muscle pain, headache, pain behind the eyes, and vomiting. This illness will usually have milder symptoms and can last from a couple days to a week.  

Image source: The Tico Times, The Aedes mosquito

At first, the Zika virus popped up in 2007, where only 14 human cases were discovered. It later reappeared in French Polynesia in 2013, where 28, 000 people sought out medical care. 

In the last month however, there have been a soaring amount of cases confirmed in Brazil, with no visible end in sight. This is now classified as a pandemic, and is slowly making its way around the world.

Fun fact: there is no medication for treating the Zika virus. If you get sick, you basically get to tough it out (#PartyForOne). Unfortunately, there is no vaccine available at this time.

Can this happen you?

Anyone is at risk in places where the Zika virus is found. Where are these places? Mainly Mexico, the Caribbean, Brazil, Columbia, Barbados, French Polynesia, Thailand, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, the Philippines & more. Essentially, the beautiful, exotic and hot places we all long to see (myself included). 

Image source: CBC News

Image source: CBC News

Why is everyone "Zik"-ing out?

(I apologize for the terrible pun, I couldn’t help myself).

This week, the CDC reported that a dozen cases were confirmed in the United States, and that eventually the mosquitos would make their way here as well.

There is an even bigger problem though. The Zika virus has been linked to a rare birth condition called microcephaly. It is an extremely serious, incurable birth defect that causes children to have exceptionally small brains (as well as very small heads). These children could unfortunately die while in the womb, at birth, or not long after. 

Image Source:  www.CDC.gov , The Economist

What can you do?

If you are pregnant, or plan to become pregnant, you are strongly misadvised to travel to Brazil, Latin America, or any of the other countries listed. Going to these countries while pregnant puts you at risk for getting infected with the Zika virus, miscarrying, or your child being born with microcephaly. How? Well, this virus can be passed from the mother to the child in the womb.

So, that great deal you got for a 5-star resort in Brazil, maybe cancel it… Again, I am not a doctor, so obviously if your doctor says something else, listen to them.

If you are not pregnant, or do not plan on becoming pregnant, you could still go to these places (not sans-risk though). However, do you really want to spend your week off potentially sick with fever and watching entire villages being fumigated? Probably not. 

Image Source: CBC News

Image Source: CBC News

None the less, if you do decide to still take that vacation, here is what you CAN do:

-       Use insect repellent such as DEET over your clothes (as directed)

-       Wear long sleeve shirts and long pants

-       Use air conditioning as well as window/door screens and bed canopy’s

Image Source: CDC.gov

Image Source: CDC.gov

I apologize for the ultra depressing article and subject matter (babies dying… super light read, I know). I promise my next article won’t be about puppies dying.

But the sensitive and urgent nature of this virus meant that the inner microbiologist in me needed to share it.

For more information, visit the CDC travel advisory right here.

If you have any further comments or questions, write them down below and I will try my best to answer them!! 

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