Zika virus has made world headlines over the past year due to a large outbreak in South America. The virus was first discovered in monkeys in the Zika forest in Uganda in 1947. Since then, outbreaks of Zika virus disease in humans have been recorded in Africa, Southeast Asia, Central and South America, and the Pacific Islands. The current outbreak in South America has been the largest to date.
Zika virus is spread by infected Aedes species mosquitoes. These are the same mosquitoes that spread yellow fever and dengue viruses. Only 1 in 5 people infected with the Zika virus will develop symptoms and the symptoms are those of a mild flu-like illness: fever, headache, body-ache and joint pain. A rash may also develop.
The main area of concern regarding Zika virus, and the reason why the WHO has declared a global emergency, is the affect infection in pregnancy can have on the unborn baby. Since the outbreak in Brazil started, there has been a large increase in the number of reported cases of babies being born with small heads due to underdeveloped brains, a condition known as microcephaly. There is early data to suggest that Zika virus infection during pregnancy may lead to microcephaly in the baby.
Last week, Lancet Laboratories diagnosed the first case of imported Zika virus in South Africa. It was in a man from Columbia travelling to South Africa on business. He presented with the symptoms described above and has subsequently made a full recovery. It is to be expected that there will be further imported cases as people travel between affected countries and South Africa. It is important to note that the is no local transmission of Zika virus in South Africa and South Africans are not at risk for infection unless they travel to an affected country. It is recommended that when travelling to an affected country, efforts should be made to avoid mosquito bites. Pregnant women should avoid travelling to affected countries.
There is evidence to suggest that Zika virus may rarely be spread sexually as the virus is found in the semen for some time after a male is infected. It is recommended that men who have travelled to an affected country and have a pregnant partner should abstain from sexual activity or use a condom for the duration of the pregnancy.
Lancet Laboratories offers testing for Zika virus infection. Testing is only recommended if a person presents with two or more symptoms compatible with Zika virus disease within 2 weeks of travel to an affected area.
Lancet Laboratories is working closely with the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) in order to ensure that imported cases of Zika virus infection are documented and monitored.