5 things Kenyans should know about the Zika Virus
The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the Zika virus an international emergency on Monday evening following alarming reports of the virus’ spread and effect across various parts of the world.
But as the story made headlines on various global publications, many Kenyans still remain in the dark about what the virus is and what an outbreak could mean for the country.
While some may be quick to write this off as just another health epidemic that has ravaged distant lands, some experts have expressed concern about the virus spreading to African countries.
Below are 5 things that you should know about the Zika virus:
- Zika is linked to ‘brain damage’ in newborns
When news of the Zika virus outbreak in South America spread over the past few months, one associated risk sent alarm bells ringing: the virus’ link with microcephaly.
Microcephaly, as defined by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), is “a birth defect where a baby’s head is smaller than expected when compared to babies of the same sex and age. Babies with microcephaly often have smaller brains that might not have developed properly”.
Doctors have noted that mothers who were infected by the Zika virus gave birth to children who had microcephaly, with Brazil reporting 4,180 cases of the defect since November 2015.
Following reports about the link between Zika virus and microcephaly, CDC has warned pregnant women and those trying to get pregnant to exercise special precautions because of the outbreak.
“There have been reports of a serious birth defect of the brain called microcephaly and other poor pregnancy outcomes in babies of mothers who were infected with Zika virus while pregnant. Knowledge of the link between Zika and these outcomes is evolving, but until more is known, CDC recommends special precautions for pregnant women and women trying to get pregnant,” reads an information page on CDC’s website.
- Zika virus is mosquito-borne
Much like Malaria, Zika virus is mosquito-borne. This means that when an Aedes mosquito bites an infected person, it then passes the virus on to all other people that it bites.
An infected person is only a carrier if they are symptomatic; after that, chances are low that they could pass the disease on to others.
Unborn children are at special risk because they can get infected with the dangerous virus through their mother’s amniotic fluid.
The CDC further states that the virus can also be transmitted through sexual intercourse, labour and laboratory exposure.
- You may not easily know that you’re infected
Over 80% of infected persons never know that they have the disease because they do not present any symptoms.
Even those who do get symptoms could easily ignore them because they are mild and flu-like.
“The symptoms are similar to other infections such as dengue, and include fever, skin rashes, conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain, malaise, and headache. These symptoms are usually mild and last for 2-7 days,” reads an info-sheet circulated by the WHO.
- There is no vaccine available
There is no medical way of protecting yourself against the virus as there is no commercial vaccine available.
Individuals are however advised to ensure that they fumigate their homes, destroy breeding grounds and wear mosquito repellent.
Should you get diagnosed by the virus, the WHO advises you to “get plenty of rest, drink enough fluids, and treat pain and fever with common medicines. If symptoms worsen, they should seek medical care and advice. There is currently no vaccine available”.
It is important to note that fatalities are fairly uncommon with Zika virus; the symptoms are often too mild to require hospitalization.
- One African country has been hit
Though there have been several reported cases on the continent in the past, only one African country has been hit by the recent outbreak.
The WHO reports that Cape Verde had 4,744 suspected cases of the virus from September to December 2015.
Experts have raised concerns about the possible spread of Zika virus to Africa, especially because of international travel.
Dr. Ruchika Kohli, a clinical pathologist at Pathologists Lancet Kenya says that the Kenyan government should be aware of a potential outbreak in the country.
“With international travel and international trade, the reality of Zika spreading to the rest of the world including Africa is a reality. In terms of are we gearing up for a Zika epidemic or pandemic right now? No, I don’t think we need to be worried at that scale. But of course, I think our government, our health ministry need to be aware that there is a potential of spread into our country.
She, however, notes that African populations may have some immunity to the virus, noting at the same time that much remains unknown about the virus.
“There might be an element of immunity that is existent in the African population. But is it the same strain of the Zika virus from the 1940s or is it a new strain, or is it even the Zika virus that’s causing the microcephaly or not? There’s a lack of information. We have more questions than we have answers,” she said.
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