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Zika Virus Disease, Microcephaly, and Guillain-Barré Syndrome

Linda Crampton is a writer and former teacher with a first-class honors degree in biology. She writes about the scientific basis of disease.

Aedes aegypti feeding on human blood; photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim

Aedes aegypti feeding on human blood; photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim

A Sometimes Troubling Viral Infection

The Zika virus is transmitted to humans via a mosquito bite and can cause disease. The symptoms of the disease can be unpleasant but are often mild. Sometimes there are no symptoms at all from the infection. The virus is worrying, however. In 2015-2017, it spread rapidly in some places. In addition, it's linked to more serious disorders, including Guillain-Barré syndrome and microcephaly (abnormally small brain and head size in babies).

The virus is transmitted by a bite from a mosquito belonging to the genus Aedes, including Aedes aegypti. This is not the same genus that causes malaria. Aedes does transmit diseases, though. In some countries, it’s responsible for the transmission of dengue, yellow fever, and chikungunya as well as Zika virus disease. The illness is also known as Zika fever or simply as Zika.

Zika Virus Disease

The Zika virus is not new. It was discovered in 1947 in rhesus monkeys in Uganda. The virus is named after the Zika Forest in that country. It was found in humans in 1952 but for a long time was not common. The first episode that could be called an outbreak took place in 2007. In 2014, the first evidence of viral transmission from mother to fetus was discovered. Its significance wasn't appreciated at the time.

In recent times, the virus has spread rapidly and has attracted the attention of health authorities. Research suggests that a genetic change that is helpful during infection has spread through the viral population.

Possible Symptoms and Treatment

Potential Symptoms

Symptoms of Zika virus disease may include a fever, rash and headache, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red and inflamed eyes). The symptoms generally last for a few days to about a week. Around 80% of infected people experience no symptoms. People usually recover from the infection without help. The infection may make a person feel miserable and may interfere with life for a while, but often the illness isn't serious.

Treatment for the Disease

There is currently no specific treatment for a Zika virus infection. The symptoms can be treated, however. As in any other viral infection, rest, adequate fluids, and good nutrition should help the immune system to fight the virus and aid recovery. If the condition doesn't improve or gets worse, a doctor's advice should be sought. He or she will be able to prescribe suitable steps to help patients. Pregnant women, those with certain pre-existing health problems, and people with serious symptoms should consult a doctor immediately.