(Vatican Radio) Brazilian researchers in Rio de Janeiro have identified the genome sequence of the Zika virus, finding further evidence that the mosquito-borne disease is related to the incidence of microcephaly, an illness causing babies to be born with abnormally small heads. Scientists call the mapping of the virus’ genetic data a “significant step” towards understanding how the virus operates in the human body.
The World Health Organization, meanwhile, is calling for $56 million in aid to combat the virus which is believed to be linked to hundreds of cases of microcephaly in Brazil and has spread to 39 other countries.
The WHO, which declares the outbreak a “global health emergency,” will use the funds to fast-track vaccines and research how the virus is spread.
Dr. Tarun Dua, a medical expert at the WHO in Geneva, explains that in addition to microcephaly, the virus has been linked to an increasing number of cases of Guillain-Barre – a syndrome that can cause paralysis and sometimes even death. She tells Sophia Pizzi more about it…
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Guillain-Barre syndrome can cause paralysis, death
“There is muscle weakness so the person could have difficulty walking and then have difficulty using their arms, and loss of sensation. And sometimes it can also lead to the chest muscles – muscles that control breathing and this is one of the reasons that when you have paralysis of these muscles, the person can die. Some of the other causes of death are also infections or lung clots or cardiac arrest,” says Dr. Dua.
The World Health Organization reports that Brazil, Columbia El Salvador, Suriname and Venezuela have registered an increase in Guillain Barre (GB) virus syndrome. In July 2015, health authorities in Brazil registered 42 cases of GB syndrome.
Out of the 42 cases, Dua notes, 7 were confirmed as carrying the Zika virus infection. “There is a suspicion [that Zika may be linked to the syndrome], but it’s not yet proven, and there is research ongoing” among regional and global researchers to determine any possible causal links.
A handful of cases of sexual transmission of the Zika virus have been reported in the international press. Dr. Dua observes “we know quite a bit about the microcephaly that is occurring and Zika virus infections during pregnancy,” but “I think we need to look at much more evidence and look at the causal link before [sexual transmission] is confirmed.”
Dr. Dua reiterates that the most effective means of protecting oneself against the Zika virus and hampering its spread, is through information and awareness. Wearing long pants and shirts can also reduce the risk of being bitten by mosquitos as well as using insect repellent and mosquito nets. Eliminating places where water can stagnate, the breeding grounds for the mosquito-vectors of Zika, can also help prevent the diffusion of the virus.
And, if they are traveling to countries affected by the Zika virus, pregnant women should discuss their travel plans with their doctors, Dua stresses. “They should consider delaying travel to any area where locally-acquired Zika infection is occurring.”