ANOTHER mosquito-borne virus is causing global panic.

The Zika virus, which spread in Brazil last August, is allegedly the reason some healthy babies were born with normal faces but no forehead—a condition called microcephaly.

Zika has since spread to 24 other countries, endangering especially mothers and their unborn children. This prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare the virus a global health emergency last Feb. 1.

The Zika virus belongs to the family Flaviviradae and is commonly transmitted through the bite of the Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus, mosquitoes found in tropical and sub-tropical countries like Brazil and the Philippines.

“The Zika virus has been around since the 1950s and originated from macaque monkeys,” said Dr. Razel Kawano, a quality assurance manager in Medical Trends and Technology Corp., in an interview.

According to Kawano, the Zika virus is typically zoonotic and harmless to the macaque monkeys, but becomes pathogenic once transmitted to a human host. “Through the years, the transmission of the virus from human to human caused it to mutate to the point that its genetic make-up has become pathogenic to humans,” she said.

Diagnosis of the Zika virus is difficult because patients suffering from it manifest the same signs and symptoms of chikungunya, yellow fever, dengue and other Flaviviruses.

Fever, rashes, joint pains and conjunctivitis of up to a week are the common symptoms of a person infected with Zika.

“Patients who contracted the virus are given supportive care, just like those who contracted dengue,” Kawano said. “Also, we try to avoid hemorrhage.”

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Though the mortality rates for the Zika virus are low, the pressing concern are newborns with microcephaly from mothers who contracted the virus during pregnancy, according to the WHO.

Zika is being linked to 4,180 cases of microcephaly in babies born in Brazil, where 51 have been reported dead due to the virus.

Reports also claimed the virus may be transmitted sexually, through blood transfusions and through contact with other bodily fluids, such as urine and saliva of those who are infected.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a national public health institute in the United States, listed the countries affected by the virus as follows: Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Cape Verde, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, Suriname, Samoa, the US Virgin Islands and Venezuela.

CDC has advised all pregnant women to stay away from places affected by the virus and to destroy potential breeding areas of mosquitoes.

A potential epidemic

While the country had yet to affected by Zika, the Department of Health (DOH) is taking precautionary measures to prevent the virus from becoming an epidemic in the country.

The DOH encourages people to immediately seek medical help if they manifest symptoms of the virus. Thermal scanners have been stationed at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport to detect any incoming passenger that has a fever.

DOH spokesperson Dr. Lyndon Lee Suy also advised Filipinos to make sure that their environment is clean by throwing away stagnant water that becomes a breeding place of mosquitoes.

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“We just have to maintain ourselves in a good environment. If we put ourselves together, the threat becomes smaller,” he said in an interview.

According to Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, a clinical trial for a vaccine could begin this year.

However, experts said such vaccine would take years to develop as its safety and effectiveness still needed to be examined.

Despite the absence of a vaccine against Zika, Suy said the DOH could still help pregnant women detected with the virus.

Some 1,000 diagnostic kits for the Zika virus will be shipped to the country from CDC, then stored at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) in Muntinlupa City.

However, due to the scarcity of kits worldwide, these would not be used until there is a strong suspicion of the virus in a person.

“We have very limited supply [of testing kits]. We need to prioritize on who should be subjected to testing,” Suy said. “Having a fever is not enough for us to give a kit as other factors should also be noted [such as patient history, travel history and past exposure.].”

The RITM will train five hospitals in using the diagnostic kits, namely the Lung Center of the Philippines, Baguio General Hospital, San Lazaro Hospital, Southern Philippine Medical Center and Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center.

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