Mosquito-borne virus blamed for birth defects in Brazil

Health officials and parents in Brazil are grappling with a surge of birth defects traced to mosquitoes. In the last year, more than 2,700 infants have been born with microcephaly, tiny heads and brains that leave children permanently disabled. That rate is about 20 times higher than recent years.

The culprit receiving tentative blame is Zika, a tropical virus named for the Ugandan forest where it was first found decades ago. The infection can cause microcephaly. Its presence was detected in the amniotic fluid of two mothers with microcephalic babies. Health officials also are finding that other moms who delivered malformed children reported Zika symptoms during their pregnancy.

Brazilians have stepped up their long-running and sometimes successful war on aedes aegypti, the mosquito that carries Zika and other diseases, including dengue fever, yellow fever, and chikungunya. Before the Zika outbreak, Brazil already was waging a pitched battle against dengue fever, which in 2015 had infected 1 million — twice the number of infections from the year previous. Dengue fever killed at least 839 Brazilians in 2015, an 89 percent increase in fatalities over the year previous.

The fear over the tropical infections and the possibility of birth deformities has grown so great that some health officials have suggested that women in the hard-hit northeastern state of Pernambuco may wish to postpone pregnancy until the crisis is better contained.

Officials say that Zika has been detected in the United States in a few travelers but there have not been infections here — yet. As I wrote recently, experts have expressed growing concern that climate change will foster conditions in the United States even more favorable to tropical infections like Zika, dengue, West Nile, chagas disease, and chikungunya. Authorities on the Big Island of Hawaii now are battling a rare outbreak of dengue and are spraying to combat aedes aegypti,  a pest and disease vector that has found a home across the South (Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina, Georgia — and yes, historically in Virginia and Maryland), Texas, Arizona, and California.

Zika was little heard of until recently, when it popped up in Pacific islands, infecting 75 percent of the residents of Yap, spreading to Tahiti, and necessitating the hospitalization of 28,000 across French Polynesia. The World Health Organization has been tracking the disease, reporting incidences in Cape Verde in Africa and in this hemisphere in Panama and Honduras. Zika cases have occurred in Mexico. It may have reached Brazil, the speculation goes, as part of the nation’s hosting of the 2014 World Cup or a recent World Sprint canoe race.

The Zika crisis could not come at a worse time for Brazil, already racked by political scandal, a plunging economy, and is the impending host of the Summer Olympic Games in Rio.

There are no vaccines or treatments for Zika, which typically is a mild infection.  It lasts for a few days to a week, inflicting fever, rash, joint pain, and reddened eyes on its victims. Travelers should be aware of this and other outbreaks of it and take all necessary precautions to prevent mosquito bites that transmit this and other tropical diseases.

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