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Tropical virus headed for the U.S.
A disease rarely seen in North America has reared its head recently and prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to issue several advisories in the past few weeks. - photo by Daniel Lombardi
A disease rarely seen in North America has reared its head recently and prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to issue several advisories over the past few weeks and now the diseases is expected to spread to most of the U.S.

Compared to many other tropical diseases, Zika has not been seen as a serious threat to humans, until recently. Most people who contract Zika experience no symptoms and for those who do, the symptoms are typically mild and rarely fatal. Now the CDC is saying all women of childbearing age should avoid traveling to places where the Zika virus has been circulating. This especially includes Brazil where doctors are claiming a link between the Zika virus and birth defects.

The World Health Organization said this week that the virus is likely to spread to every country in the Americas except Canada. Anywhere the Aedes mosquito lives is likely to face the virus, according to a Los Angeles Times story.

Doctors in Brazil and in the U.S. think there is strong evidence of a link between the Zika virus and a birth defect called microcephaly that causes babies to be born with underdeveloped brains and skulls, according to a Wall Street Journal story. Brazils health ministry has reported at least 3,530 cases of suspected Zika-related microcephaly since October 2015, and Hawaii has reported one case, the infant of a woman who was living in Brazil last year during her pregnancy, the journal reported this week.

Its suspected that infected mothers pass the virus to their unborn babies through the placenta, but the connection is not fully understood and scientists say more research is needed to understand the precise link. One thing is clear, cases of microcephaly in Brazil were 20 times higher in 2015 than in 2014, The Atlantic reports.

Zika is the fourth mosquito-borne illness to spread across the Western Hemisphere in the past few decades, after dengue, West Nile, and chikungunya. Zika is still a pandemic in progress, Anthony Fauci and David Morens wrote in The New England Journal of Medicine, yet it has already reinforced one important lesson: In our human-dominated world, urban crowding, constant international travel, and other human behaviors combined with human-caused microperturbations in ecologic balance can cause innumerable slumbering infectious agents to emerge unexpectedly.

This week, in an act of desperation, El Salvador has advised all women in the country to avoid getting pregnant until 2018, according to a New York Times story. The virus has hit the country hard, with more than 1,500 cases the past month, and critics say the decree is a cry for help.

I mean, the futility of saying something like this, Dr. Ernesto Selva Sutter, a leading public health expert in El Salvador told the Times. Are you going to stop having sex?

Cases of the Zika virus have recently appeared in 19 countries in Central and South America and the Caribbean but Brazil has fared the worst with more than a million infections, Vox reported. Colombia, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Venezuela and Puerto Rico have also had cases. The virus is continuing to spread and health officials expect it's headed for the United States mainland, which means you'll probably be hearing a lot more about Zika soon, wrote Vox.

The Zika virus comes from the Zika Forest in the central African country of Uganda, where it was first described in 1947. Since then, Zika has had little human impact. There have only been about 14 or 15 cases documented until 2007," Dr. Marcos Espinal, the director of communicable diseases at PAHO told Vox. In 2007 the disease started popping up in small outbreaks in various Pacific Islands.

The Zika virus is in the same family as the West Nile, dengue and yellow fever viruses, and like them, is spread through mosquito bites. Mosquitos bite an infected person and then spread the disease to everyone else they bite. There is some evidence suggesting that sexual intercourse can also transmit the Zika virus.

There is no vaccine for Zika and the CDC says the best way to protect against it is by avoiding mosquito bites by using insect repellents and wearing protective clothing.