An outbreak of Zika virus, a tropical mosquito-borne disease, caused microcephaly and other birth defects, as well as the debilitating Guillain-Barré syndrome, throughout Latin America starting in 2015. Governments, aid organizations, health workers, and families throughout the Americas worked to contain the outbreak from its sudden, rapid spread from Brazil. The disease has all but disappeared from the news since 2017 but remains a risk in dozens of countries and territories.
History of the Zika virus
1947 — Researchers studying yellow fever in Uganda first identify the Zika virus in monkeys.
1952 — The first human cases are found in Uganda and Tanzania.
1969 to 1983 — Cases are identified in Asia, but there was no large outbreak and symptoms were mild.
2007 — The first large human outbreak of the infection occurs in Micronesia on the island of Yap.
2013 to 2014 — Outbreaks occur in four other groups of Pacific islands.
2015 — Brazil notifies the World Health Organization (WHO) of an outbreak of a skin rash of unknown origin affecting about 7,000 persons in northeast states. In May, Brazil identifies its first Zika case.
2016 — In February, the WHO declares that the spread of Zika leading to microcephaly and other neurological conditions constitutes an international public health emergency. As of July, it has spread to 65 countries and territories. In August, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control issues guidance for prevention in areas of Miami-Dade County, Florida, after detecting mosquito-borne transmission of the disease. In November, the WHO removes the international emergency designation, though officials maintain that the disease is still a global public health threat in tropical areas.
2017 — In June, the CDC removes the Miami-Dade County warning with no new cases of Zika.
2018 — Vaccine testing continues. The incidence of known infections is low worldwide.
FAQs: What you need to know about the Zika virus
Explore frequently asked questions about the Zika virus, and learn how you can help children and families affected.
- What is Zika?
- What is Zika’s greatest threat?
- How do you get Zika?
- What are the symptoms of Zika?
- Where did Zika hit the hardest during the latest outbreak?
- Is the virus still a threat?
- How can I help families affected by Zika?
What is Zika?
Zika is a virus most often transmitted by the Aedes Aegypti mosquito — a different type from the mosquito that transmits malaria. It can also be transmitted sexually and from mother to child during pregnancy.
About 75 countries and territories have reported cases of the virus, and more than 5,600 people in U.S states. have been diagnosed with Zika. Most of them — 5,389 people — were travelers returning from affected areas. Only 229 people have contracted Zika locally in the U.S.
What is Zika’s greatest threat?
The greatest concern with Zika is its link to microcephaly and to Guillain-Barré disease. Microcephaly is a congenital condition causing unusual smallness of the head and incomplete brain development in newborns that leads to a lifetime of developmental delays. Guillain-Barré is a rare neurological disorder that can lead to paralysis.
In 2014, Brazil had fewer than 150 cases of microcephaly. Between October 2015 and October 2016, more than 2,000 cases were confirmed. Officials in 19 affected countries reported cases of Guillain-Barré potentially associated with Zika.
“This is a very serious crisis since it has a direct impact on the lives of children and their well-being,” says Stefan Pleisnitzer, regional leader for World Vision in Latin America.
How do you get Zika?
People contract the virus when an infected mosquito bites them — this same type of mosquito can carry dengue and yellow fever. While bed nets have proven to protect people against mosquitoes that carry malaria, they are less effective in preventing Zika because the Aedes Aegypti mosquito bites during the day.
The best way to avoid getting Zika is to protect yourself against mosquito bites by covering your skin with clothing or mosquito repellent. Eliminating water puddles around the house also helps, as small, stagnant puddles are perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
Zika can also be spread through sexual contact and from a pregnant mother to her child.
Here are the top five things you should know about Zika, according to the CDC:
- It primarily spreads through infected mosquitoes.
- The best way to prevent Zika is to prevent mosquito bites.
- It is linked to birth defects.
- Pregnant women should not travel to areas at risk.
- Even if they do not feel sick, infected returning travelers can spread the virus.
Though vaccine trials are underway, it will be several years before a tested vaccine will be widely available, according to the WHO.
What are the symptoms of Zika?
Symptoms of Zika include mild fever, skin rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). However, only 20 percent of people who contract the virus experience any symptoms, and people who do rarely need to be hospitalized.
Where did Zika hit the hardest during the latest outbreak?
In Brazil, the most affected country, the Ministry of Health estimates that 1 million people were infected with Zika. There have also been more than 2,000 confirmed cases of Zika-related microcephaly in Brazil. The WHO declared the public health emergency was over in November 2017. However, that does not mean Zika is no longer being transmitted.
Is the virus still a threat?
Zika is still a threat in tropical areas, including parts of the Americas, Asia, and Africa. The rapid spread of the virus throughout Latin America means most people there have been exposed to the disease, leading to herd immunity. That means few people in the area are still at risk of becoming ill and transmitting the disease.
While a few small outbreaks could happen now, the epidemic is likely to be dormant for a decade or more until a new generation is born.
How can I help families affected by Zika?
Pray: Please pray for people in Latin America who have been affected by the Zika virus, especially parents of children with birth defects and the children themselves, who face many challenges in their development.
Sponsor a child: Help World Vision improve the lives of children and families in Latin America by sponsoring a child.
World Vision’s work to combat the Zika virus
World Vision has worked in Latin America since 1977, operating in 14 countries, including 12 of the 26 countries affected by the Zika outbreak.
- Information on mosquito control and individual protection
- Health services and protection kits, including mosquito nets, for pregnant women
- Community engagement activities on protection, sanitation, and cleanup in partnership with churches and youth groups
During the worst of the health crisis, World Vision staff provided direct assistance to more than 400,000 people at risk of contracting Zika. In six months, they also reached more than 3 million people in 1,000 communities in the worst-affected municipalities with awareness and prevention programs.
As World Vision experts responded to the Zika outbreak, they were able to draw on successes and lessons learned from the fight against Ebola in West Africa between December 2014 and June 2016. That response proved how critical it is to work with respected local leaders, including those of churches, to get out accurate prevention messages and to dispel any misinformation, rumors, or scaremongering, which can set back efforts to tackle spread of disease.
In Brazil, World Vision partners with agencies that provide physical, psychosocial and speech therapies for children with microcephaly. World Vision also helps their parents with the expenses of accessing the care their children need.
Chris Huber and Kathryn Reid of World Vision’s staff in the U.S. contributed to this article.