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Zika virus: What is it and will it affect me?

The Zika virus has recently been declared a public health emergency by the World Health Organisation , but what is Zika and what does this mean for us in Manchester?

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The University of Manchester has recently published advice for students—particularly to those who are planning to travel in the near future.

The Zika virus is a mosquito-borne disease that has been around since the 1950’s. It is known to cause mild symptoms such as headaches, conjunctivitis, and an unsightly (but usually self-clearing) rash. This month there has been a notable increase in publicity about Zika, as some researchers have now claimed that the virus may be responsible for the growing numbers of newborns diagnosed with microcephaly; a neurological defect that results in an under-developed brain.

The virus is primarily affecting South America with over 4,000 cases of microcephaly reported in Brazil since October 2015.

Earlier this month, it was announced that the Zika virus was present in two patients from Dublin who had previously travelled to the infected area.

On the 8th February 2016, a case in New Zealand was reported. The World Health Organization (WHO) has now declared Zika virus a public health emergency, meaning that research is now being fast-tracked in order combat infection.

Microcephaly-comparison-500px

The neurological defect, microcephaly, is thought to be a symptom of the Zika virus in newborns. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

However, it must be noted that the reported links between Zika and cases of microcephaly are under much scrutiny by the scientific community, meaning that WHO could retract their announcement if there is no causal relationship found between the two.

There is much debate questioning why Zika has been categorised similarly to Ebola—with many arguing that WHO have published this declaration following previous criticism for taking too long in announcing that Ebola was a global health crisis.

The University of Manchester has issued a notice to students advising them to check the status of the disease in particular areas before planning to travel. The university has also invited students who have recently travelled to Central or South America to express their concerns to their Occupational Health Service.

It can therefore be deducted that for now, pregnant women—particularly those in Latin America or those that have recently travelled to the area—are at the highest risk. For others, the seriousness of the virus is still thought to be mild.

Second year medicine student Lizzie Rawlins has commented on Zika and health crises in general: “I think it’s good to stay informed about emerging health issues, Zika hasn’t been as publicised as Ebola, but that doesn’t mean we should play it down. I think it’s good the WHO has stated that it’s an emergency. It may not be affecting us currently as students in the UK, but with major research now taking place it means that there will be more preventative measures in place for the future.”

Second year Microbiologist Paolo Arru has also commented: “I think it’s important to note that Zika is currently only problematic for pregnant women. I think there should be more emphasis on diseases such as HIV because it’s problematic on a larger scale and clearly has a larger impact on public health worldwide.”