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Diagnosis of untreatable Zika virus in Houston is a cause for concern, experts say

But there's no need to panic.

LYDIA RAMSEY AND ERIN BRODWIN, BUSINESS INSIDER
18 JAN 2016
 

A little-known virus that has already gained a major foothold in South and Central America just arrived in the US via someone travelling from South America, NBC News reports.

The virus was diagnosed in someone in Houston on Monday. Notably, this isn't the first time a tourist has carried Zika to North America, but some experts say there is cause for concern.

 

Peter Hotez, Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and Director of the Texas Children's Hospital Centre for Vaccine Development told NBC News that some American cities could be vulnerable to Zika's spread, though a single tourist is unlikely to be the cause of an outbreak here.

"The problem with it is we have to act now," Hotez said. "This is such an unusual virus. It tends to produce low-level symptoms."

Zika, which has only recently moved beyond Africa and Southeast Asia, has already had debilitating effects in the Americas. It's especially problematic in Brazil, where its appears to be connected to a serious birth defect.

The Zika virus was originally identified in 1947 in Uganda. It's primarily transmitted by tropical mosquitoes – the same kind known for spreading dengue – that pick up the virus from infected people, according to the CDC. It was relatively unknown until 2007, when there was an outbreak of the virus in Micronesia.

Until 2014, the virus had only broken out in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. That year, it spread to Easter Island and Chile. By May 2015, Zika had made its way to Brazil. In the past year, Brazil has seen more than 84,000 cases of the virus.

So far, there are no vaccines or treatments for Zika. The only way to prevent the infection is to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes.

Currently, nine countries in Central and South America have reported cases of the virus. Puerto Rico reported on December 31 that it had its first locally acquired case of the virus. Once infected, only about 20 percent ever show symptoms, which most commonly include fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes.

And, in the case of Brazil's outbreak, the virus appears to have a harmful effect on pregnant women. In total for 2015, thousands of babies – about 10 times the normal amount for a year – were born with microcephaly, a condition in which the brain is abnormally small. This birth defect was often found after the mother had Zika virus-like symptoms early in the pregnancy.

According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), microcephaly can result from a number of different prenatal conditions, such as other infections, genetics, and exposure to toxic substances. Some of the babies recently born with microcephaly have tested positive for the Zika virus, but others have not, the CDC reports, making it difficult to draw a definite conclusion about the reason for the increased prevalence of the condition.

However, both public officials and independent scientists doubt the two instances are completely coincidental.

Several other viruses, including rubella and herpes, are known to cause congenital defects in babies born to mothers with the condition. And doctors have recently detected Zika RNA, the genetic material the virus uses to reproduce, in several foetuses born with microcephaly, Scott Weaver, the director of the Institute for Human Infections and Immunity at the University of Texas Medical Branch, told the Genetic Expert News Service.

With this discovery, said Weaver, "The link between Zika virus infection and microcephaly has become reasonably strong."

Nevertheless, Weaver added that it's still a bit too early to rule out an alternative cause. To do that, scientists would need to link the mother's infection directly to the beginning of the child's microcephaly and prove that no other viruses were involved.

The New York Times recently reported that Zika's spread could have something to do with climate change increasing mosquito ranges. As climates shift and get warmer, mosquitoes have more area they can cover, which means the disease can spread farther north into places it might not ordinarily reach.

In any case, an epidemic wouldn't be entirely the result of a hotter planet, but warming temperatures could make things worse.

This article was originally published by Business Insider.

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