Will the Zika virus spread to South Africa?

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An Aedes Aegypti mosquito is photographed on human skin in a lab of the International Training and Medical Research Training Center. (Luis Lobayo, AFP)
An Aedes Aegypti mosquito is photographed on human skin in a lab of the International Training and Medical Research Training Center. (Luis Lobayo, AFP)

The National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) believes South Africa is not likely to be at risk of Zika – which is "spreading explosively" in the Americas, according to a warning by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Illness usually mild

The Zika virus is spread to people through an infected mosquito from the Aedes genus, mainly Aedes aegypti in tropical regions. This is the same mosquito that transmits dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever.

The most common symptoms of Zika virus disease are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting from several days to a week. Severe disease requiring hospitalisation is uncommon.

View: Map of countries and territories with Zika transmissions

Professor Lucille Blumberg, who is a deputy director at the NICD, told SABC news in a TV interview: "I think South Africa really doesn't have a risk of Zika."

She explained that Zika originated in the Zika forest in Uganda in 1947 where it was identified in rhesus monkeys. "It is spread by a particular mosquito, mostly causing mild illness in people infected."

Blumberg said pregnant women who contracted the virus are at risk of microcephaly – which causes babies to be born with an abnormally small head and brain – and neurological development problems in their newborns. "That is the big concern."

Increasing body of evidence

She warned that pregnant women should be careful about going abroad. "Pregnant women should not travel to places like Brazil at the moment."

Read: Zika virus - 14 things you need to know

The WHO states that health authorities in Brazil have observed an increase in Zika virus infections in the general public as well as an increase in babies born with microcephaly in northeast Brazil.

"Agencies investigating the Zika outbreaks are finding an increasing body of evidence about the link between Zika virus and microcephaly. However, more investigation is needed before we understand the relationship between microcephaly in babies and the Zika virus."

Since Brazil reported the first cases of local transmission of the virus in May 2015, it has spread to 21 countries and territories* of the Americas (as of 23 January 2016).

Blumberg also noted that there are checks for fever at South Africa airports, mainly related to the Ebola outbreak, but she cautioned that there is a list of infectious diseases, including malaria and dengue that one would need to consider regarding returning travellers.

Key facts

- Zika virus disease is caused by a virus transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes.
- People with Zika virus disease usually have a mild fever, skin rash (exanthema) and conjunctivitis. These symptoms normally last for 2-7 days.
- There is no specific treatment or vaccine currently available.
- The best form of prevention is protection against mosquito bites.
- The virus is known to circulate in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific.

Prevention

Mosquitoes and their breeding sites pose a significant risk factor for Zika virus infection. Prevention and control relies on reducing mosquitoes through source reduction (removal and modification of breeding sites) and reducing contact between mosquitoes and people.

This can be done by using insect repellent; wearing clothes (preferably light-coloured) that cover as much of the body as possible; using physical barriers such as screens, closed doors and windows; and sleeping under mosquito nets. It is also important to empty, clean or cover containers that can hold water such as buckets, flower pots or tyres, so that places where mosquitoes can breed are removed.

Treatment

Zika virus disease is usually relatively mild and requires no specific treatment. People sick with Zika virus should get plenty of rest, drink enough fluids, and treat pain and fever with common medicines. If symptoms worsen, they should seek medical care and advice.

Also read:

Zika virus spreads to more tropical destinations

Brazil waging war against Zika mosquito

US may develop vaccine for Zika virus

Don't be fooled by 'mild' Zika virus

Zika virus: pregnant women shouldn't travel to Brazil

Surge of Brazilian babies born with small heads

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