It’s not a good year for Brazil – after a crippling water crisis and a huge mining environmental disaster, the country is now facing another major problem: thousands of babies are being born with brain damage due to a mosquito-borne virus.

Rash on arm due to the Zika virus; most infections cause only mild symptoms, but in some cases, they can be devastating. Image via Wikipedia.

The problems seem to be caused by the Zika virus, which causes a disease called “Zika disease” or Zika fever. It is related to dengue, yellow fever, West Nile and Japanese encephalitis, viruses that are part of the same family. The pathogen, which was discovered 70 years ago, causes mild symptoms in most, but can lead to huge complications in others, including microcephaly – a condition in which infants are born with shrunken skulls.

“This is an unprecedented situation, unprecedented in world scientific research,” the ministry said in a statement on its website, according to CNN.

Now, there are over 2,400 suspected cases in Brazil, after only 147 last year. The situation is so dire that  Angela Rocha, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist in Pernambuco, one of the areas with the largest incidence rates.

“These are newborns who will require special attention their entire lives. It’s an emotional stress that just can’t be imagined…,” Rocha said. “We’re talking about a generation of babies that’s going to be affected.”

Until a few years ago, reports of microcephaly were almost unheard of, but it is suspected that the Zika virus was brought during the 2014 World Cup including areas affected more strongly by the virus, such as Africa – where did – and Asia. Because it is a mosquito-borne virus, it started spreading like crazy, aided by global warming and in some areas, lack of access to proper sanitation. The yellow fever mosquito (Aedes aegypti) commonly found in Brazil can transmit diseases like dengue fever, chikungunya, zika fever and yellow fever just as good as the Anopheles mosquito. They both originated from Africa, but are now found in most tropical areas of the world.

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It’s very difficult to detect the disease in human populations – and we are still learning new things about it; only in 2009 it was suggested that Zika virus can be sexually transmitted between humans. Brian Foy, a university biologist from the Colorado State University became infected with the disease and passed it on to his wife through intercourse.

Brazil is now struggling to contain the virus by eradicating mosquitoes and through education campaigns, but the process is slow.

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