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Zika Virus – When Mosquitoes affect the unborn child

Imagine carrying a child for 9 months, waiting anxiously for the day to arrive when you finally get to hold the bundle of joy in your arms only to discover that a mild cough or flu that you dismissed as something trivial, manifested in your baby being born with an abnormally small head. Microcephaly, a rare birth defect is associated with incomplete brain development. This is the alarming consequence of the disease caused by Zika virus in pregnant women, which is making headlines all over the world for possibly being the next devastating pandemic.

Zika virus was first discovered in monkeys in 1947 in Uganda.  It was subsequently identified in parts of the Americas, Africa, the Pacific and Asia- including Pakistan in 1983. Zika, a Flavi virus, belongs to the same class of viruses as dengue and shares the same notorious vector, which continues to wreak havoc in our country, the Aedesaegypti mosquito. The disease is thus spread by the bite of this mosquito.  Symptoms are usually mild compared to Dengue with flu like sickness, muscle and joint pains, rash as well as conjunctivitis. In fact, up to 80% of the cases the disease is asymptomatic. The most concerning aspect however, is the devastating affect on the unborn child.Chances of contracting the disease are more in the first trimester when often signs of pregnancy are missed. There is no cure for microcephaly and the related brain damage nor is there any vaccine available.

The WHO has predicted that up to 4 million people may be infected by the end of this year.Since the Aedes mosquito is present in a large part of the world, US scientists say the disease has“ an explosive pandemic potential.” Pregnant women have been advised not to travel to more than 20 countries mostly in the Caribbean and Latin America.It has been predicted that no place in the Americas will be spared except Chile and Canada, which do not harbor the mosquito. The situation is so dire that women in these countries have been advised not to get pregnant up till 2018! With a twenty-fold increase in microcephaly and 3,800 cases reported, Brazil has been hit the hardest. Brazil incidentally will hold the Olympics this year with tens of thousands of people from all over the world expected to attend.

There is reason to be concerned about how a potential outbreak may affect us. Pakistan is already struggling with outbreaks of Dengue with more than 8000 cases reported last year in Punjab and Sindh alone. Overcrowding, appalling hygienic measures and stagnant water due to poor drainage of rainwater has contributed to the rise in numbers. The Aedes mosquito continues to thrive in this environment despite fumigation drives and numerous measures by the government. Should a Zika infected person or mosquito make its way here; it would be a recipe for disaster. It may occur sooner than you think if proper measures are not taken and the issue addressed in all seriousness. The Olympics in Brazil in the summer will provide the perfect scenario for this virus to go global.  In addition, the Hajj pilgrimage later this year will also be an opportunity for this virus to spread, as the Aedes mosquito is present in the Arabian Peninsula. With the increasing number of unplanned pregnancies and population boom in our country one shudders to think the catastrophic implications of the disease. Mentally challenged people face overwhelming obstacles in our country. We are not equipped to handle the mass disabilities arising from this disease.

It is impossible to completely eradicate the mosquito’s responsible for this disease. However, we can take steps to lessen the blow.  It is time that we take the issue seriously and develop a nationwide plan to curb the spread of mosquitoes. The government needs to regroup on the matter of rising cases of dengue and analyze what can be done to curb it. We can do our part by notifying authorities about stagnant water, which serves as a breeding ground and also by raising awareness about the issue. It is also advised not to leave any buckets or containers filled with water lying uncovered. The use of insect repellants especially while doing out door activities is also advised. Other precautions such as using mosquito nets, wearing light colored clothes and covering up should be taken whenever possible.

The key to limiting damage caused by infectious diseases be it Dengue or Zika, is to take pertinent steps and form an action plan before we find our selves in the grip of another epidemic.  As Benjamin Franklin famously said “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’

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