The World Health Organization declared the Zika virus an international public health emergency Monday as the disease continues "spreading explosively" and could infect as many as 4 million people in the Americas.
The health organization has only declared a public health emergency three times before for polio, swine flu and Ebola. Few people had ever heard of Zika before last month, and according to NPR's Here & Now, "The mosquito-borne virus was known to cause mild symptoms like rashes and fevers, but in most infected people—four out of five—Zika didn’t produce any symptoms at all."
But last month, Brazilian health officials reported more than 4,000 cases in the past year of infants born with microcephaly, a severe birth defect causing small heads and under-developed brains, and they believed the defects were linked to Zika.
NPR says the virus has spread to at least 24 countries with at least 30 cases in the U.S., all of them from people who contracted the disease after traveling to high risk areas.
Officials in countries, such as Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Jamaica and El Salvador, are advising women to avoid pregnancy until the outbreak has passed. The Brazilian government even enlisted 220,000 members of the military to go door-to-door to help eradicate mosquitos.
For thousands of years, humans have taken every precaution to avoid mosquitoes and the diseases they carry, from Malaria to Zika. But while techniques for fighting the insects have improved dramatically over time, scientists say long-term climate change could soon make protecting humans from mosquitoes much more difficult.
The link between climate change and mosquito-borne illness centers around how rising temperatures may expand the area in which mosquitoes can thrive. Most such illnesses can only be transmitted at temperatures between approximately 16°C (61°F) and 38°C (100°F), according to a World Health Organization report. Perhaps more significantly, the time it takes for mosquitoes to develop decreases significantly the closer temperatures are to around 30°C (86°F). The average global temperature is expected to rise by at least 2°C (3.6°F) by 2100 even if countries take dramatic action to limit their greenhouse gas emissions. In some areas, that shift will be much more dramatic.
Shifts in precipitation levels caused by climate change could also have an effect on where mosquitoes can successfully reproduce. Mosquitoes breed in still water habitats and remain for a week after heavy rainfall.
Still, researchers cautioned that it's hard to predict how global warming will impact mosquito populations in any given area. But most experts agree that, as with most impacts of climate change, the poor are the most vulnerable.
The disease's rapid spread has caused alarm among the general public. To learn more about the virus, Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson spoke with Scott Weaver, director of the Institute for Human Infections and Immunity at the University of Texas Medical Branch.
Here are 10 facts about Zika virus from Weaver:
1. The Zika virus was discovered in Uganda, Africa in 1947, but it is believed that the virus existed much earlier than that.
2. It was discovered when looking for yellow fever in monkeys and was found in mosquitoes in 1948.
3. Mosquitoes become infected by feeding on animals infected with the virus.
4. After mosquitoes contract the virus, there is an incubation period in which the virus spreads through the mosquito, into salivary glands.
5. It is unsure as of yet if the Zika virus can be spread from a mosquito to its progeny.
6. Between the discovery and 2007, only 14 human infections of Zika virus were documented.
7. Studies conducted on populations in Africa and Asia found high levels of immunity towards the Zika virus, suggesting previous undocumented transmission.
8. It’s expected to take a few years to develop a vaccine or therapeutics for Zika.
9. The current strategy to manage Zika is to reduce the mosquito population, including clearing stagnant water where the mosquitoes breed.
10. The mosquito that carries Zika virus, aedes aegypti, prefers to be indoors and bite humans throughout the day.
Listen to Scott Weaver speak to Jeremy Hobson on NPR's Here & Now:
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