The Zika virus, which is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, is strongly suspected to be linked to a new wave of microcephaly cases in Brazil. Babies born with this birth defect have smaller heads and sometimes brains that aren't fully developed, which can result in life-long developmental problems.
Zika is currently spreading through Central and South America and the Caribbean, and with the high volume of news about the virus, it's tough to stay up-to-date. Check out our full coverage, or read our daily recaps.
Here are four updates, opinions and developments to know about now:
1. Texas has rapid Zika virus tests
One of the major hurdles to controlling the Zika virus epidemic is that doctors don’t have any tests that can rapidly and accurately diagnose a person with the disease. Now two Texas hospitals say they have developed those rapid tests, and can spit out results in hours, as opposed to the weeks it normally takes, reports Reuters.
The tests are available only at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston and Houston Methodist Hospital, but officials are exploring ways to let other scientists benefit from their work. Texas has been pegged as a high-risk state for Zika virus spread in the U.S., based on their history of small dengue fever and chikungunya virus outbreaks. Both diseases are transmitted by the same mosquito that carries Zika virus.
2. Puerto Rico freezes the price of condoms to prevent profiteering
U.S. health officials fear that the territory of Puerto Rico, which has already had several cases of locally transmitted Zika virus, is poised to experience a widespread outbreak of the disease. This is because they’ve recorded tens of thousands of dengue fever cases in the past, and both dengue and Zika virus are carried by the same mosquito. But it appears that Zika virus can be spread sexually too, and to protect residents from contracting the disease, NPR reports Puerto Rican officials have decided to freeze the price of condoms.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people living in areas with local transmission of Zika virus, like Puerto Rico, use condoms consistently and correctly to prevent the potential spread of the disease, especially between pregnant couples.
3. Brazil's health system is faltering under the strain of microcephaly
The Brazilian babies born with microcephaly, the birth defect tied to Zika, need physical therapy and mental stimulation in infancy to try to counteract the effects of brain damage suffered in the womb. But poor parents living in the outskirts of big urban centers have to travel hours to get to the nearest health center, and Brazilian experts say that given the country’s recession, they doubt the government will construct new ones any time soon, reports Reuters.
As of Feb. 20, Brazilian health authorities have confirmed 583 cases of microcephaly, but they’re still investigating 4,107 more cases. Experts say that Brazil’s microcephaly cases are unusually severe, and that more babies will be born with microcephaly in the coming months. This will increase the workload struggling health centers have to contend with in the midst of the Zika virus outbreak.
4. Two more countries added to the Zika virus travel warning map
The destinations are the Caribbean nation Trinidad and Tobago and the Marshall Islands, located southwest of Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean. Travelers there should follow strict mosquito bite prevention protocol, like wearing long sleeves and pants and using mosquito repellant. There are now 34 destinations around the globe experiencing active Zika virus transmission.
Pregnant Americans should consider postponing their trips to these areas, the CDC advises. Barring that, pregnant women should discuss travel with their OB/GYN, and men who travel to these areas should use condoms consistently and correctly with pregnant partners to prevent sexual transmission of the disease.