January 14, 2016 3:40 pm
Updated: January 14, 2016 7:43 pm

5 things Canadians need to know about Zika virus

WATCH ABOVE: The Zika virus is making its way through more than a dozen countries, such as Puerto Rico and Mexico. The virus is spread through the bite of a mosquito. Health officials say its inching closer to North America.

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It triggers a fever, headaches and red, watery eyes. Some victims encounter pain in their joints, and now scientists are wondering if it’s the culprit behind neurological defects in babies.

Zika virus is making its way through more than a dozen countries, such as Puerto Rico and Mexico. Health officials are mapping its migration as it inches closer to North America.

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READ MORE: Olympics in Brazil could spark spread of Zika virus abroad, Canadian docs warn

“It’s known as one of the more milder infections,” Jason Tetro, a Canadian microbiologist and author of The Germ Code, told Global News.

“That all changed with an adaptation of the virus. In the last few years it’s become more virulent and as a result, it’s spreading like wildfire,” he warned.

Here are five things you need to know about Zika virus.

What is Zika virus?

Zika virus was identified in 1947 in the Zika forest in Uganda. Its spread was limited to Africa and Southeast Asia until 2007. In recent years, it’s surfaced across Central and South America and as far north as Mexico.

READ MORE: What Canadians need to know about ‘kissing bug disease’

A case was confirmed in Puerto Rico in December in which an individual hadn’t even travelled, which means he or she was bitten by a locally infected mosquito.

How do you get infected with Zika virus?

Like Dengue, West Nile and Yellow fever, Zika virus is a mosquito-borne tropical disease, meaning they transmit the disease to humans.

“Mosquitoes are the perfect vector. They normally don’t suffer from having the virus in them and they are blood transfusers,” Tetro explains.

In short, mosquitoes draw blood from the infected animal then re-inject the blood – with the virus in tow – into others at their next meal.

READ MORE: Why some Canadians are more prone to mosquito bites than others

And it’s the female mosquitoes that we need to worry about. They’re the ones that bite mammals.

After that, the incubation period for the virus ranges from three to 12 days. The illness lasts for up to a week, Tetro says.

In some instances, victims’ conditions worsen with severe complications. The Zika virus can also be mistaken for dengue, chikungunya or other infections with nearly identical symptoms.

There is no treatment

Only one in four people infected with Zika virus end up developing symptoms, health officials say. They include fever, joint pain, red eyes, rash and muscle pain, lack of energy and headaches.

READ MORE: What you need to know about ticks and Lyme disease

Right now, there is no vaccine or antiviral therapy to treat the virus. Its victims end up on bedrest and anything else that’ll help to alleviate the symptoms.

Brazilian health officials are questioning its ties to illnesses in babies

Zika virus first appeared in Brazil in May 2015. Months later, health officials noted a rise in birth defects in the country.

By Wednesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they found the strongest evidence so far tying the virus to a rare condition known as microcephaly, in which babies are born with irregularly small heads and underdeveloped brains.

“The evidence is becoming very, very strong of the link between the two,” Dr. Lyle Petersen, director of mosquito-borne diseases at the CDC told the Associated Press.

READ MORE: Officials warning women in northern Brazil to not have babies

There’s been a 20-fold increase in the number of babies born with this typically rare condition.

The CDC says the virus was found in the placentas of two women who miscarried and in the brains of two newborns who died. Right now, the link isn’t definite. CDC investigators are travelling to Brazil to conduct more studies.

Brazil is grappling with the world’s largest outbreak of Zika virus so far.

It could make its way into North America

The Public Health Agency of Canada already confirmed that a B.C. resident who travelled to El Salvador contracted the virus. Another case surfaced in a patient who travelled to Thailand. There hasn’t been a single reported case of locally acquired Zika virus in Canada, PHAC says.

The disease can’t be passed from person-to-person.

READ MORE: CDC warns of Zika virus in BC

Canada doesn’t have Aedes mosquitoes that can carry and transmit the virus either. But remember, viruses are stealthy – they constantly tweak themselves to become more resilient in their environment.

“As far as we know, the mosquitoes in Canada can’t carry Zika. I fully expect Zika will make its way up north and if it can adapt to mosquitoes in Canada, there’s a good likelihood it will spread,” Tetro warns.

It wouldn’t be a first: West Nile virus and Lyme disease, as examples, weren’t common in Canada.

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca

© 2016 Shaw Media

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