As the Summer Olympics come to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, there is a big concern for all of the athletes about the zika virus. For most of the people in the northern hemisphere, we never heard of this virus. But when you have a global event such as the Olympics, everyone gets to know about what the environment is like.
All we know right now is that is transmitted by mosquitoes and causes small heads in unborn children. Athletes from around the world are descending on Brazil and endangering their health for shiny medals. Women athletes are the most vulnerable since infection can affect the health of an unborn child. But here comes the dilemma: you have trained for years and sacrificed everything for your moment to get gold. At what point is you health worth it?
So it turns out that the zika virus (#zikavirus) has been around for a long time and is not just specific to South America. The first strain was discovered in Africa in 1947 in the Zika forest of Uganda. A different strain was also identified in Asia which are quite similar to the Brazilian strain. The virus is spread primarily by mosquitoes. Since mosquitoes are the primary carrier for infection, the symptoms associated with the virus are similar to dengue fever which is carried by the same mosquito and chinkunguya virus. Outbreaks of the zika virus are mostly reported in tropical Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands but thanks to human travel, there have been reports of infections in Brazil, Texas, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.
Zika Virus Symptoms
Depending on the strain of the virus that you have been infected by, the symptoms can range from fever, rashes, joint pain and conjunctivitis. Some of the symptoms are so mild that one doesn’t even know that they are infected. These symptoms last a few days and can be treated The issue becomes if you are pregnant. This is where an infection becomes dangerous to the unborn child. It turns out that the virus affects the brain of the fetus and causes what is called microcephaly (undersized brain or shrunken heads).
As science catches up to understanding the infection, the focus has been on how the zika virus gets through the placenta from the mother as well as the blood brain barrier. An interesting thing is that the placenta (the organ that connects the fetus to the uterine wall has trophoblasts or placental cells that protect against most viruses. Somehow the zika virus gets through.
It is understood that once the virus reaches a developing fetus’ brain, it affects neural progenitor cells which form early in fetal development and generate neurons in the brain. Neural progenitor cells are stem cells that can split into various cell types. But damaged progenitor cells create fewer neurons which leads to less brain volume and ultimately mental disabilities. Once the zika virus infects these cells, they convert them into manufacturing plants for the virus so the infection spreads quickly until these cells die off. This step of the process usually occurs in the first trimester and can cause a miscarriage. As we understand more and more on how the virus works, scans are beginning to show lesions on the infant brain. This is a sign that the lobes that control thought, vision and other basic functions are being eaten away.
Currently there is no zika virus cure nor is there a zika virus vaccine. Those that state that it will come soon are quite optimistic but lying. It is important to treat the symptoms if you feel any. Get plenty of rest, drink plenty of fluid to prevent dehydration and take over the counter medication such as acetaminophen or paracetamol to reduce fever and pain. The zika virus usually remains in the blood of an infected person for about a week but once you are infected, you can’t be reinfected.
It turns out that the zika virus originally found in Africa has mutated as it moved around the human population. There has never been a concern since the side effects were very rare and never attributed to this virus. Currently, the best defense are modern comforts that exist for some of us. We know that mosquitoes don’t do well in the cold so being in an air-conditioned environment actually helps. Mosquito population control, repellent and nets are great at minimizing infection until a vaccine or cure can be found.
Science today is an amazing process. We know from studying the virus that the side effects are caused by a spike in caspase-3 which is crucial protein in programming cell death. Based on this information, they have identified three compounds: a caspase inhibitor, a Russian antidepressant, and a common vitamin. Before everyone start rejoicing, you have to perform safety testing, clinical trials and determine whether it is effective against the virus. So if you attend the Summer Olympics, bring repellent, contraceptives and enjoy supporting your country.
Are you worried about the zika virus?