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Zika virus: An emerging threat

By Gardy Chacha | May 11th 2016

Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) received funds from UK’s Medical Research Council Zika Rapid Response Initiative in March 2016 for a study to establish presence of the Zika virus in Kenya and other East African countries.

The project is expected to be complete within 18 months.

Currently, there is no confirmed case of a patient harboring Zika virus in Kenya. It is however, not known whether the current situation is the result of preventive measures or lack of diagnostics.

“East Africa needs a comprehensive analysis of the virus,” says George Warimwe, lead researcher on the East African Zika study.

The researcher says this analysis is vital because the virus, primarily transmitted by mosquitoes, has been found to be quite contagious. The latest cases have been reported in South Africa and Vietnam.

The Zika virus was first discovered in monkeys found in Uganda’s Zika forest in 1947 – where the virus derives its name. Aedes Aegypti, the mosquito that transmits the virus is endemic nearly all over the world and only Canada and Chile are free from this insect vector.

Zika virus infection is largely asymptomatic but fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes are likely. It however, causes microcephaly in unborn children which is characterised by unusually small heads, and associated with incomplete brain development which results in developmental problems in babies.

There is no specific treatment for the virus and there is currently no vaccine to protect against infection.

“Once it is confirmed that an expectant mother has Zika there is nothing much that can be done,” cautions Dr John Ong’ech of Kenyatta National Hospital department of obstetrics and gynecology.

Eliminating breeding spots and controlling mosquito populations can help prevent the spread of the virus. But since Aedes Aegypti is active during the day more than during the night, scientists are recommending use of mosquito repellents and wearing of long sleeved clothes and apparels that cover more surface area.

“Those who come from areas synonymous with high mosquito populations such as Nyanza and Coast would do well applying mosquito repellents to protect themselves from diseases transmitted by the insect,” Dr Ong’ech says.

Zika’s prevalence could also begin to show increased traction after scientists at Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently discovered that the virus can be sexually transmitted.

In February the first case of sexual transmission of the virus was confirmed by Texas, USA, health officials. A female patient tested positive for Zika after intercourse with someone who had returned from Venezuela and got infected with the mosquito-borne virus.

Following this case, CDC officials issued a raft of preventive measures advising couples planning to get pregnant to wait for six months if the male has been exposed to Zika.

They also say men who have visited regions afflicted by Zika, but did not fall ill, should only have protected sex or abstain. Pregnant women have also been asked to either abstain from sex or use condoms if the man is at risk of infection

Additionally, if a woman has confirmed Zika or exhibits Zika symptoms, a couple should wait at least eight weeks after the symptoms before trying to conceive.

“This is our best attempt at this time, knowing what we know,” said Dr Denise Jamieson, of the CDC.

They also advice against traveling to countries in Latin America where Zika has reached epidemic proportions.

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