Last year, we had chikungunya. The years before we had –– and still have –– dengue. This year, it’s the Zika virus, which is being blamed for a rash of reports of microcephaly among infants born in Brazil.
The condition, in which babies are born with unusually small heads, is said to have jumped from an average of about 150 cases annually to more than 4,780 cases since October, 2015.
About 20 per cent of persons infected with the Zika virus will become ill from the virus. The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain, or conjunctivitis (red eyes). Other common symptoms include muscle pain and headache.
The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting for several days to a week. People usually don’t get sick enough to go to the hospital, and they very rarely die of Zika.
The Zika virus usually remains in the blood of an infected person for about a week, but it may be found longer in some people.
The treatment of Zika is similar to that of dengue, so:
Get plenty of rest.
Drink fluids to prevent dehydration.
Take medicine such as paracetamol (Panadol®) to relieve fever and pain.
Do not take aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
If you are taking medicine for another condition, talk to your health-care provider before taking additional medication.
The Brazilian government has already admitted that, because of the parameters its health authorities set to determine microcephaly, there was dramatic over-reporting of the rare condition public health officials have associated with the Zika virus –– which has been dubbed by the media as the “shrunken head” virus.
To be on the safe side, when Zika-affected areas began seeing a rise in microcephaly, the Brazilian government asked health officials to report any case in which a child was born
with a head circumference smaller than 33 centimetres.
False positives were expected, and when they realized that most of these babies were in fact healthy and normal, the threshold was lowered to 32 centimetres in December. The limit may be lowered even further, to 31.9 centimetres for boys and 31.5 centimetres for girls.
The New York Times reported: Of the cases examined so far, 404 have been confirmed as having microcephaly.
Only 17 of them tested positive for the Zika virus . . . . Another 709 babies have been ruled out as having microcephaly . . . underscoring the risks of false positives making the epidemic appear larger than it actually is. The remaining 3,670 cases are still being investigated.
As noted by the New York Times, there’s actually very little scientific evidence tying the Zika virus to this particular condition.
According to the World Health Organization, the Zika virus may have infected as many as four million people in the Americas, and public health officials in Brazil, Colombia and El Salvador are reportedly all researching the effects of Zika infection in pregnant women.
Our local authorities have not pushed the panic button as yet regarding pregnancy and Zika. I suspect there are other parameters which they are looking into.
In humans, Zika infection typically causes only mild flu-like symptoms, if any, and there does not appear to be any prior evidence suggesting it might cause birth defects.
Certainly, I am not saying Zika can be totally excluded, but there are many other factors and co-factors that offer an intriguing explanation for the rise in microcephaly in this area of Brazil besides Zika-carrying mosquitoes.
The area reported as the incubator for the outbreak of the “shrunken head” virus is in a largely poverty-stricken agricultural area of Brazil that uses large amounts of banned pesticides.
Coupled with the lack of sanitation and the widespread vitamin A and zinc deficiency in that area, there is the basis for an increase in poor health outcomes among newborn infants in that area.
Environmental pollution and toxic pesticide exposure have been positively linked to a wide array of adverse health effects, including birth defects. When you add all these co-factors together, an increase in microcephaly may be plausible.
Vitamin A and zinc deficiencies are known to depress immune function and these nutritional deficiencies are considered endemic in Brazil. More importantly, vitamin A deficiency has been linked to an increased risk of microcephaly specifically, and zinc has been shown to play an important role in the structure and function of the brain.
Since 2011, research has been published showing that prenatal exposure of the pesticide atrazine produced the side effect of small-head circumference.
Atrazine is used to prevent pre- and post-emergence weeds and is the second most commonly used herbicide after Roundup.
In the United States, approximately 25,000 infants are diagnosed with microcephaly each year. Brazil has about 70 per cent of the population of the United States, and now reports just over 400 cases, 17 of which tested positive for the Zika virus.
Colombia reports that 3,177 pregnant women have tested positive for Zika virus, yet no cases of microcephaly
Science is based on fact. There is not enough corresponding proof to pin the shrunken head syndrome on the Zika virus alone.
Precautions must be taken against contacting the Zika virus and attention must be paid to any Government announcements regarding any possible connection between the Zika virus and what is happening in Brazil.
(Bandele Serrano is a registered pharmacist.)