In 1947, researchers first discovered a new virus in a rhesus monkey in the Zika Forest of Uganda in East Africa. 5 years later, the same virus, now called Zika, was isolated in humans in Uganda and next-door Tanzania.
Over the next 40 years, Zika viruses turned up across Equatorial African and Equatorial Asia, spread mostly through a common and hardy mosquito labeled Aedes Aegypti. At the time, it seemed as though Zika could be serious and could cause a few human deaths, but because about 80% of those infected have no symptoms, and of the rest who do, the rashes and headaches associated with Zika usually were tolerable and not long-lasting, it didn’t get a lot of attention.
But last year, in Brazil and Colombia, the number of cases of Zika virus infection began to spike, and dozens of people were falling seriously ill. In Brazil, reports began of babies being born with microcephaly, tiny heads with stunted brains. In Colombia there was a lot of Zika, but almost no microcephaly…a mystery that remains unexplained today.
By November 2015, Brazil had declared a public health emergency, and by January 2016, Zika had spread across 18 countries in the Western hemisphere, from Bolivia in the South to Mexico. On February 1, the World Health Organization declared an international health emergency.
The very next day, the first Zika case was reported in the United States, and doctors said the virus was transmitted, not by a mosquito bite, but by sex.
On Feb. 8, President Obama asked Congress for $1.9 Billion to fight Zika. He may finally have gotten a positive response this week, 7 months later.
As Zika spread, public health authorities advised pregnant women to avoid countries where infection was widespread, and in some of those countries, public health experts advised women to delay pregnancy until the outbreak had subsided.
Over 2016, medical scientists have started working on 3 ways to prevent the disease…by killing or neutering the mosquitos with insecticides, or with genetically modified mosquitos, and by protecting potential victims by developing a Zika vaccine.
Meanwhile over this summer, America’s first Zika death was reported in Utah; while in New York City doctors determined women as well as men could be sexual carriers of Zika and recorded the first American case of Zika-caused microcephaly.
The latest research shows Zika has spread to some 60 countries world-wide, with outbreaks in Thailand and Singapore discovered just in the past few weeks. In Singapore, the Zika caseload climbed past 300 in just a month.
Dr. Seema Yasmin is a staff writer at The Dallas Morning News; a Professor at The University of Texas at Dallas; and a Medical Analyst for the NBC affiliate KXAS-TV in Dallas and for CNN.