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No need to panic about Zika

Carla BleikerJanuary 27, 2016

The virus currently spreading in the Americas is no laughing matter for pregnant women and newborns, but it's no lethal epidemic either.

A researcher examining a mosquito through a magnifiying glass. (Photo: REUTERS/Josue Decavele)
Image: Reuters/J. Decavele

From what you currently read about Zika, you could get the impression that the virus ranks about the same as Ebola and just slightly below HIV on the "scary viruses that might kill you"-scale.

One issue is the lack of information. Though the Zika virus first made an on-the-record appearance in Uganda in 1947, there's been hardly any research on it to date. No vaccine has been developed, and the most recent outbreak only dates back to early last year, when the virus surfaced in Brazil.

But experts caution that there's no reason to panic.

Infografik Spread of the Zika virus. (Graph: DW)

"We shouldn't compare Zika with HIV or Ebola, so people don't get the wrong idea and spread hysteria by saying Zika is the new HIV," Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit, virologist at the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine, told DW.

A mild virus

For a healthy grown-up who isn't pregnant, Zika doesn't pose much of a threat. Common symptoms include fever, joint ache and a rash with small red spots. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) put it pretty clearly: "The illness is usually mild… Severe disease requiring hospitalization is uncommon. Deaths are rare."

Compare that to Ebola, which comes with vomiting and unexplained bleeding and killed more than 11,300 people in the recent West-Africa outbreak, and you'll see that Zika isn't quite that bad.

Some tourists have already brought the virus back to their European home countries from vacation without any major consequences. According to the news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa), there have been ten cases reported in Germany since 2013.

The dpa also mentions four cases in Italy, three in Great Britain and two in Spain, though those numbers are probably incorrect, since there's no international protocol for reporting and recording the virus, Schmidt-Chanasit said. More people could have been infected without ever knowing: the CDC reports that only one in five people infected with the virus actually become ill.

Dangerous birth defect

All that is not to say that Zika is completely harmless. The virus has been connected to an exceptional high number of babies born with microcephaly in Brazil. In the most recent Zika outbreak, around 4,000 newborns were diagnosed with the birth defect. Their skulls are smaller than those of healthy babies, which leads to brain damage.

A doctor holds a baby with microcephaly. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)
In hospitals like this one in Recife, Brazil, more and more babies are born with mircrocephalyImage: Getty Images/M. Tama

"The connection between Zika and microcephaly isn't 100 percent proven yet, but very likely," Schmidt-Chanasit said. "Evidence is accumulating by the hour."

How exactly a mother can pass the virus on to the fetus is still unclear. Once the baby is born, Zika can be transmitted through breast-feeding. Some countries in South America have already advised women to delay getting pregnant until 2018.

The risk is only high if the virus is contracted during pregnancy. Women who travel to Brazil now and get pregnant two months later, for example, don't need to worry, Schmidt-Chanasit said, because the virus can't survive in the human body for long.