The Zika virus was first discovered in the 1940s, though most people had never heard of it until this year. That’s because for decades, Zika outbreaks were sporadic and tiny, and the disease seemed to do little harm.
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That changed in 2015. A massive outbreak in Brazil — affecting more than 1 million people — has changed our view of the mosquito-borne virus. Scientists are learning that Zika may actually be a lot more dangerous than anyone thought, potentially damaging the brains of foetus and causing incurable and lifelong health and cognitive problems. In light of this evidence, the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency on February 1.
Meanwhile, the virus has been spreading throughout the Western Hemisphere at a rapid rate, carried by a type of mosquito that feeds on and thrives alongside humans. More than 20 countries are currently battling outbreaks, and Zika is expected to reach nearly every corner of the Americas this year (save for Canada and Chile, which aren’t home to the mosquito in question). Odds are you’ll be hearing a lot more about Zika in the coming weeks and months.
What is Zika? Is it a new virus?
Zika is actually an old virus — it’s only recently that health experts have been seriously worried. It was first discovered in 1947 when it isolated from monkeys in the Zika forest in Uganda. And for decades thereafter, it barely bothered humans.
Prior to 2007, there were only 14 documented Zika cases. But then the first big outbreak erupted on Yap island in Micronesia, with 49 confirmed cases. And from there, the virus was on the move.
Soon cases popped up in other Pacific Islands, including a large outbreak in 2013-’14 in French Polynesia (388 cases). By May 2015, health officials had detected the virus in Brazil — possibly arriving with a traveler to the World Cup. Within a year, more than a million people in Brazil had been affected, as mosquitoes carried it from person to person as they do diseases like malaria and yellow fever.
Zika has since spread to more than 20 countries — mostly concentrated in Central and South America and the Caribbean — and it’s expected to go much further.
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