Aedes mosquito-borne disease could give newborns abnormally small brains
As Americans continue to debate whether to deport illegal aliens or admit Syrian refugees, there may be another cross-border migration that could prove pretty hard to stop: that of the Aedes mosquito.
The Aedes, which is known to carry yellow, chikungunya and dengue fevers, is spreading another menace throughout Latin America and the Caribbean: the Zika virus. It may be only a matter of time before the virus comes north.
And because the virus is suspected for birth defects, El Salvador is urging women not to get pregnant until 2018, the New York Times reported.
Zika is a mosquito-borne virus that is new to the Americas, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) explained in a press release Monday. “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 January 23, 2016],” it said.
It added that Aedes mosquitoes are present in all the regions’ countries except Canada and continental Chile.
“PAHO anticipates that Zika virus will continue to spread and will likely reach all countries and territories of the region where Aedes mosquitoes are found,” the statement said.
Some Latin American countries, such as Colombia and Ecuador, as well as Jamaica in the Caribbean, have recommended delaying pregnancies as well, though not for as long as Salvadoran officials are recommending.
Hardest hit in the region so far has been Brazil, where more than a million cases have been confirmed, including nearly 4,000 cases of microcephaly in newborns that could be linked to Zika. Microcephaly is a rare, incurable condition in which an infant’s head is abnormally small.
But the World Health Organization stressed that health authorities and agencies are investigating the potential connection between microcephaly and Zika virus, in addition to other possible causes.
“However, more investigation and research is needed before we will be able to better understand any possible link,” it said. “Until more is known, women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant should take extra care to protect themselves from mosquito bites. If you are pregnant and suspect that you may have Zika virus disease, consult your doctor for close monitoring during your pregnancy.”
Church officials in El Salvador, which is 57 percent Catholic, have expressed concern about the government recommendation to delay pregnancy. Salvadoran officials defended the measure in an interview:
“If we don’t make any recommendations to the population, we could have a high incidence of microcephaly,” said Eduardo Antonio Espinoza Fiallos, the vice minister of health. “Of those children, 99 percent will survive, but with limitations in their mental faculties.”
For most people, the effects of the Zika virus are mild. Symptoms are flulike and can last up to a week, with victims sometimes unaware that they have contracted the virus. Zika has no known cure.
But a recent spike in cases of microcephaly in infants has health experts worried that the condition could be the result of women contracting Zika while pregnant.
The World Health Organization said it would not recommend suspending pregnancies for two years.
“There are many questions that need to be answered before making that recommendation,” Dr. Marcos Espinal, director of communicable diseases for the Pan American Health Organization, told The Times.
One of the most important, he said, is whether the country is at the peak of its epidemic. “You have to assess the risk in making such a recommendation of how it will impact the birthrate of a country,” he said.
The PAHO says that evidence on mother-to-child transmission of Zika during pregnancy or childbirth is limited. “Research is currently underway to generate more evidence regarding perinatal transmission and to better understand how the virus affects babies,” it said. “There is currently no evidence that Zika can be transmitted to babies through breast milk. Mothers in areas with Zika circulation should follow PAHO/WHO recommendations on breastfeeding (exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, followed by continued breastfeeding with complementary foods up to two years or beyond).”
The most effective forms of prevention, according to PAHO, are (1) reducing mosquito populations by eliminating their potential breeding sites, especially containers and other items (such as discarded tires) that can collect water in and around households; and (2) using personal protection measures to prevent mosquito bites. Mosquito populations should be reduced and controlled by eliminating breeding sites.