Why is Zika Virus Spreading Swiftly Around the World?

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Zika Virus is Deadlier Today Than Before

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When the Zika virus first made headlines recently, the world was alarmed.  Without wasting time, health experts launched a medical probe into the plight of the virus that dominantly hit the Americas, including Colombia and Brazil. The virus is now becoming a global epidemic and it may spread like wildfire.

Already, Zika, a life-threatening mosquito-borne virus, has spread to more than 30 countries and continues its rapid spread across the Americas. The virus has been linked to the birth defect “microcephaly,” a condition marked by abnormally small fetal head size that is linked to developmental problems, and to neurological disease Guillain-Barre syndrome. It is so alarming that Colombian authorities have even encouraged women to delay pregnancy for six to eight months following the notification of the viral scare.

But what is causing the sudden outbreak?

Zika Virus Spreading Rapidly

The UCLA scientists say they may have answer to this. A new UCLA study suggests that the virus possesses the ability to mutate rapidly, allowing the current outbreak to spread swiftly around the world.

The spread of the virus has been linked to Recycling, Trade and Travel.

Also, the Zika virus known 70 years ago is not as deadly as the latest epidemic that causes fetal brain-development disorders and Guillain-Barre syndrome.

According to Genhong Cheng, a professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, the Zika virus has undergone significant genetic evolution in the past 70 years.

By knowing the genetic mutations, this gives scientists a wider and comprehensive explanation on how the virus is transmitted and how it causes different types of disease. Eventually, this could give scientists a clue to a possible cure for the Zika virus.

Zika Virus spreading by Aedes mosquito.
Aedes mosquito that causes the Zika virus

Zika Virus 70 Years Ago vs Latest Epidemic

The UCLA scientists revealed that the Zika virus discovered in 1947 in Uganda caused milder illnesses and the infection was primarily spread by mosquitos. The same Zika virus was also discovered in the 2007 Micronesia and 2013 French Polynesia outbreaks.

But the latest epidemic of the virus now causes severe outcomes, including fetal brain-development disorders and Guillain-Barre syndrome. These findings puzzled the scientists even more and encouraged them to probe further.

In addition, they discovered new modes of transmission. Before, the infection was spread by mosquitos alone. Now, the virus can be transmitted by sexual contact and from mother to fetus. Thus, the virus poses a significant threat to pregnant women.

According to Dr. Stephanie Valderramos, a fellow in obstetrics-gynecology at the Geffen School, it remains a mystery why the contemporary Zika infection was not associated with serious human disease, especially in newborns before.

About the New Discovery

Professor Cheng collaborated with researchers at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and Peking Union Medical College in Beijing in the study about the Zika virus’ genetic changes. The group of researchers compared individual genetic differences among 41 strains of Zika virus. The findings revealed that 30 strains originated from humans, 10 from mosquitos and one from monkeys.

What they found was that, by sequencing the virus, the team identified substantial DNA changes between the strains, showing a major split between the Asian and African lineages, as well as the human and mosquito versions.

The researchers have notions that these mutations could help the virus reproduce more efficiently, evade the body’s immune response or invade new tissues that provide a safe harbor for it to spread.

What is Next After the Discovery?

Cheng and his colleagues are not deterred from unraveling the mystery of Zika virus. In fact, the powerhouse of researchers planned to analyze the viral strains causing the current epidemic. With optimism, the discovery could lead to genetic targets for drug and vaccine development in the future.

“Our results have raised new questions about the evolution of the Zika virus, and highlight that a lot more research is needed to understand the relationship between the virus and human disease.” – Cheng

Mina Fabulous follows the news, especially what is going on in the US State Department. Mina turns State Department waffle into plain English. Mina Fabulous is the pen name of Carmen Avalino, the NewsBlaze production editor. When she isn’t preparing stories for NewsBlaze writers, she writes stories, but to separate her editing and writing identities, she uses the name given by her family and friends.