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zikavirus – a new threat to global health

Report by Harriet Maler, Vice President of JKK Sweden, and  a member of the ICJW Status of Women committee dealing with children and health.

There are several dangerous diseases - Dengue Fever, Japanese encephalitis and the best known, Malaria - which are caused by viruses or parasites, and that use mosquitoes as vectors (hosts).

Now there is a new virus, the Zikavirus, which predominantly exists in Brazil and Colombia. It affects the neurological system and a few fatal cases have been reported from Colombia. But this is not the main threat. Zikavirus is especially dangerous to pregnant women and their foetuses. In this part of Latin America there is now a rising number of babies born with microcephaly. It is not yet proven, but there seems to be enough evidence to believe that this condition is caused by the Zikavirus. This virus is transported by a special strain of mosquitoes, which predominantly is found in Brazil, Colombia and maybe other countries in South America.

Microcephaly might mean just a small perfectly normal head in a child who develops well. 
There is a great variety in head size in man. But the cases of microcephaly found now in a rising amount in South America mean something else. The foetal brain is attacked by the virus in utero. The brain does not develop and grow and that is why babies are born with unusually small heads. Their skulls look somewhat peculiar with a backwards sloping forehead. The children will be severely retarded in most respects: motor development, speech, hearing, eye-sight and understanding. We have recently seen lots of pictures of the unfortunate babies and read the tragic stories of their parents and siblings. In already underdeveloped areas families will have great difficulties in taking care of children with microcephaly. They will risk either being left at institutions or perhaps even being totally abandoned. The Zikavirus epidemic is a catastrophy not only for the affected babies and their families but for the whole community.

Although it seems as if the Zikavirus is the cause of the epidemic of microcephaly there is still no absolute, scientific evidence. Therefore WHO has been late in classifying the Zikavirus to a level of an extremely high threat to global health. But Margaret Chen, the chief of WHO did so about a week ago. Especially young women are advised not to visit the affected countries.
Yet there is no effective medicine nor vaccine against the Zikavirus and it will probably take a long time before this will be produced.

This is a tragedy, which affects mothers and children and should be of great concern to ICJW. I am sure my ICJW colleagues and friends in Mexico and Latin America know much more than what I have discussed here.