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Thousands of Brazilian babies were born with microcephaly, unusually small skulls, last year. Could this be caused by the mosquito-borne Zika virus as Brazilian officials suspect?

The Brazilian government has urged its citizens to take every possible measure to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes, and has even encouraged women to delay getting pregnant, after more than 2,700 babies were born with unusually small heads and at least 40 died of the condition last year. In 2014, the year before, only 147 cases of the condition, called microcephaly, were reported.

Angela Rocha, a Brazilian pediatric infectious diseases specialist, warned: "These are newborns who will require special attention their entire lives. It's an emotional stress that just can't be imagined. We're talking about a generation of babies that's going to be affected."

What is going on?

Brazilian researchers say that the Zika virus is to blame, and Brazil isn't the only country affected by that virus.

Mexico, El Salvador, Panama, Venezuela, Suriname, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Colombia, and Paraguay have all had cases, and on January 1, the first case of the Zika virus was reported in Puerto Rico as well. Could this be the next ebola, perhaps with a somewhat delayed fatality instead? Where did the virus come from, and how did it end up in South America?

What Is The Zika Virus?

The Zika virus, often shortened to ZIKV, is a mosquito-borne flavivirus, a close cousin to yellow fever, dengue, the West Nile Virus, and the Japanese encephalitis virus. It was first discovered in 1947 in a Rhesus monkey in the a African country of Uganda, in the Zika forest that gave the virus its name. The virus later showed up in Nigeria and other African countries, making its way to Yap Island in the Federated States of Micronesia by 2007 and only recently rearing its head in South America. Climate change is a likely culprit — rising temperatures across the globe have allowed the mosquito that spread the Zika virus, Aedes Aegypti, to proliferate and reach areas where it previously wasn't present.

The first well-documented human case happened in 1964, when a researcher got the virus and described its symptoms in detail:

  • First, a mild headache. 
  • Next, a rash that covered the face, next, torso, and upper arms, later spreading to the extremities. 
  • Then, fever, malaise, and back pain. 
  • After two days, he started feeling better and recovered. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's information reflects the observations of the researcher — the CDC notes than only one in five people infected with the virus become ill, and that the most common symptoms are "fever, rash, joint pain, or conjunctivitis", with other symptoms being "muscle pain, headache, pain behind the eyes, and vomiting". They add that most cases don't last more than a few days to a week and hospitalization isn't usually necessary, as well as that no deaths have been reported due to the virus.

That begs the question: how did we get from a seemingly benign virus that runs its course within days and leaving no permanent consequences to an epidemic in which thousands of babies are being born with microcephaly?

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