Since the emergence of the outbreak of Zika virus infection in the Americas, the link between the virus and two neurological diseases, microcephaly and Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) has not been confirmed. The World Health Organization (WHO) expects to confirm the possible links within weeks.
The outbreak, which started in Brazil in 2015, involved a sharp increase in microcephaly cases in the country. This triggered a global health emergency over the mosquito-borne virus that was first seen as a disease that just causes mild illness. On Feb. 1, WHO announced that the current outbreak is now an international public health emergency.
"It seems indeed that the link with Zika (and microcephaly) is becoming more and more probable, so I think that we need a few more weeks and a few more studies to have this straight," Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO assistant director-general for health systems and innovation, said. She added that scientists are now close to confirming those links.
Microcephaly is rare neurological condition wherein an infant's head is smaller than other children of the same age and sex. This condition is often the result of an abnormal development of the brain while inside the womb. At present, there is still no treatment for this condition other than supportive therapies to enhance the development of the child.
Guillain-Barre syndrome is also a rare condition wherein the body's immune system attacks the nerves. This may cause weakness and tingling in the extremities. The sensations can rapidly spread and eventually, causes body paralysis.
Aside from the rapid increase of microcephaly cases linked to Zika virus, the National IHR Focal Points of Colombia and Venezuela reported to the WHO about the increases in the number of Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) nationally. The agency reports 86 cases of GBS in five weeks and this is three times higher than the expected cases of the six previous years. Reports point out that the 86 cases presented with symptoms similar to a Zika virus infection.
Zika virus, a mosquito-transmitted disease related to yellow fever, dengue fever and West Nile virus, has spread through Latin America. Now, the outbreak spurred a race to develop vaccines, diagnostic tests and even medicines.
Two companies are racing to develop the first vaccine against Zika virus, one from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and another from an Indian biotechnology firm, Bharat Biotech. NIH works on vaccine that is DNA-based and works like the one developed for West Nile virus. The Indian firm is set to conduct trials in animals though there are 15 more companies working on various vaccines.