Sweeping through South America during the last year, the Zika virus is thought to be responsible for thousands of babies born with birth defects, such as a dramatic spike in the reported cases of microcephaly. Already detected in North America, and with warnings that it could find its way to Europe this summer, the World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed that the Brazilian strain of the virus has been detected in Africa for the first time.
“The findings are of concern because it is further proof that the outbreak is spreading beyond South America and is on the doorstep of Africa,” explains the WHO’s Regional Director for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti. “This information will help African countries to re-evaluate their level of risk, and adapt and increase their levels of preparedness.” She also calls for African nations to raise awareness among pregnant women about the risk that Zika poses to their unborn child, how to protect against getting bitten by the infected mosquitoes, and the potential for its sexual transmission.
The announcement details how there are thought to have been over 7,500 suspected cases of the virus in Cabo Verde, the group of islands off the west coast of Africa. This has included 180 pregnant women, while the WHO also reports that at least three babies have been born with microcephaly. Some experts, however, have suggested that as the virus has already been circulating in Africa at low levels, some groups may already have a natural immunity to the disease. Either way, the risk is too great to take, and preventative action should still be taken.
The news means that Zika has basically gone full circle around the world. The virus was originally isolated from a captive rhesus macaque that was placed out in the Zika forest in Uganda in 1947 by scientists studying yellow fever. Instead, they discovered a new virus, which they named after the forest, and since then Zika has been making its way around the world via India, Indonesia, and Malaysia, among many other countries. The first major outbreak of the disease, however, only occurred in 2007 on the island of Yap, part of the Federated States of Micronesia.
Another outbreak occurred in French Polynesia between 2013 and 2014, although this was only retrospectively discovered after the link between the virus and microcephaly and Guillian-Barré syndrome was established during the early days of the current outbreak that is happening across much of South and Latin America. At the end of 2013, there was a spike in the number of babies born with these congenital deformities in French Polynesia, which is now known to be caused by the virus.
The current outbreak has been going since March 2, 2015, when nearly 7,000 cases of suspected infection were reported to the WHO by Brazil. Since then, more and more cases have been reported from more and more countries. Now it seems that the virus is on the doorstep of Africa, where it could potentially have serious impacts, especially in countries where access to health care and help is difficult.