Zika is a mosquito-borne infection which is mostly asymptomatic or has mild, short-lived symptoms. However, according to the World Health Organization, it could increase the risk of neurological disorders and deformities in unborn babies. Although it doesn’t occur naturally here, Public Health England has advised that seven cases have been confirmed in the U.K. in the past three years, with four of those having been identified in the last six weeks.
The Zika virus is transmitted by the bite of an infected female Aedes mosquito. Once bitten it can take between three to 12 days for symptoms to develop. Unborn babies can be exposed to the virus by the mother via the placenta. It has also been sexually transmitted in a small number of cases.
There is currently no vaccine against the infection and Public Health England recommends those travelling to high risk regions avoid being bitten by a mosquito or avoid those regions altogether if pregnant.
According to the WHO, after large outbreaks of Zika in French Polynesia in 2013 and in Brazil last year, national authorities observed a severe increase in infant disorders such as Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare and very serious condition where the body’s immune system attacks part of the nervous system; and microcephaly, a disorder where the size of the head is significantly smaller than average which may cause significant neurological impairment.
While this is scary news indeed the causal links between Zika and foetal disorders are not yet clear. The WHO states that “more investigation is needed to better understand the relationship between microcephaly in babies and the Zika virus. Other potential causes are also being investigated.”
Four cases of Zika have been confirmed in the U.K. this year and Public Health England says that more are likely to follow. But, while the sudden spike is off-putting, it isn’t all bad news. Dr. Dilys Morgan, head of the department of gastrointestinal, emerging and zoonotic infections at Public Health England, told a parliamentary select committee that none of the cases were contracted in the U.K. and that it is likely that the rise in reports was influenced by the increased media attention Zika has gained in the wake of Brazil’s outbreak.
“We have raised awareness so people are more aware of the infection and we are likely to see more cases,” she said.
Morgan emphasised that people in Britain are not at risk of developing Zika; it is merely something to be aware of when making travel plans, particularly for pregnant women. “Your risk of acquiring Zika depends on where you are travelling — you are likely to get a very mild illness if you notice anything at all but if you are pregnant then you may be at risk of an abnormal foetus which is obviously devastating.”
As usual when it comes to major public health concerns it pays to be aware but remain calm.