The Zika virus is turning out to be a bigger and more unwelcome surprise than expected.
Those responsible for pandemic planning and emergency management know how fast critical situations can develop.
However, ZIKV, as the Zika virus is also known, is rapidly increasing in severity in at least two dimensions at the same time: the number of people infected and the level of danger of those infections.
Initially, there were only a handful of known cases and initial descriptions of “mild illness”, with symptoms such as headaches, rashes, fever, conjunctivitis, and joint pains.
Estimates have now risen to the possibility of millions infected and severe health risks including malformations in newborn babies and deaths of adult patients.
For a long time, since the original identification of the Zika virus in 1947 in a rhesus monkey in Uganda, there seemed to be relatively little cause for concern. Links with infection in humans were only established some years afterwards, and until 2007 only 14 cases of human infections were known.
From 2007 the virus began to spread geographically. From Africa and Asia, it arrived in parts of Oceania. By October 2013, an estimated 27,000 people were treated for symptoms strongly resembling those of Zika virus infection.
Links have been suggested concerning transmission during pregnancy, and in South America, Columbian health authorities reported the death of three patients with neurological disorders (Guillain–Barré syndrome), due to the Zika virus.
To complicate matters further, the mode of transmission may be a third dimension to be taken into consideration. Besides being mosquito-borne, there is new evidence that the Zika virus can be transmitted sexually.
Although health consequences in certain cases may potentially be very serious, for many patients so far, the illness caused has been similar to mild dengue fever and has disappeared after a few (four to seven) days.
The treatment is rest; there is no drug or vaccine available for prevention. Pandemic and emergency management organisations must as always remain vigilant and ready to handle any further developments.