The scary new tropical virus that is shrinking babies' brains

This mosquito-borne disease is spreading at an alarming rate in South American countries such as Brazil, causing alarm among pregnant women in particular...

An obscure mosquito-borne tropical virus is spreading rapidly in Brazil, and has been termed as the most alarming public health crisis to hit the country in decades.

Why?

Because it has caused thousands of cases of brain damage, where babies are born with abnormally small heads -- a condition known as microcephaly.

The Zika virus Causing brain damage in babies

According to Brazilian researchers, the Zika virus is to blame for the spike in brain damaged infants in Brazil in the last year.

The virus is carried and spread by the Aedes mosquito that also carries diseases such as yellow fever and chikungunya.

Brazilian officials registered over 2,500 cases of microcephaly in 2015, compared with just 147 in 2014 and 167 the year before that, says a Straits Times report. Sadly, at least 40 of the infants have recently died, and those who survive may face lifelong intellectual impairment.

Warnings have reportedly been issued for more cases over the next few months.

Meanwhile, women who are thinking about getting pregnant, or are currently pregnant, are being urged to take every possible precaution to avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes.

One official even reportedly suggested that women living in areas where mosquitoes are especially prevalent delay having children, at least until the the outbreak is under control.

"If she can wait, then she should," said Mr Claudio Maierovitch, director of the department of surveillance of communicable diseases at Brazil's Health Ministry.

According to reports, Zika has already spread across several countries in South America and the Caribbean, with the first case in Puerto Rico being reported just last week.

 

Ms Gleyse Kelly da Silva, 27, from north-eastern Brazil gave birth to her daughter Maria Giovanna in Octorber 2015. Her little girl was born with brain damage, which had been detected in an ultrasound scan in the seventh month of pregnancy.

Earlier in her pregnancy, Mrs da Silva had experienced symptoms of the Zika virus, such as a red rash, fever and joint pain.

"I cried for a month when I learnt how God is testing us," said the devastated mother. "I had never heard of Zika or microcephaly. Now I just pray that my daughter can endure life with this misfortune."

The deadly nature of viruses

Zika originated in Africa, and was named after a forest in Uganda where it was first discovered by scientists in the 1940s.

It is yet not clear how the virus crossed the continents to Brazil.

But some researchers are speculating that it may have arrived during the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Others "point to a canoe race weeks later when paddlers from French Polynesia, the site of a recent Zika outbreak, arrived in Rio de Janeiro."

Zika's spread to Brazil and other countries is a reflection of just how easily viruses are travelling across the planet, and experts are particularly worried that "the disease is wreaking havoc in a region where the population has not encountered it before."

They are also concerned that climate change is one of the reasons that viruses such as Zika are thriving in new environments.

In Singapore, the possibility of the Zika virus being transmitted by the Aedes albopictus mosquito was tested by researchers back in 2013.

While the study highlighted the possibility of this mosquito "to transmit ZIKV [Zika virus) and the possibility that the virus could be established locally," researchers also said that "the threat of ZIKV can be mitigated by existing dengue and chikungunya control program being implemented in Singapore."

Nevertheless, it's best to take all safety measures to ensure mosquitoes do not breed in your home and surrounding environment.

And if you are pregnant or thinking of starting a family, do avoid travel to South America over the next few months.

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