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Zika Virus Will Spread Through The Americas, WHO Says


Now to the source of a different kind of danger - the Ziko virus. It's spread by a mosquito that's found in the U.S. and every other country in the Western Hemisphere except Canada. That means we could face more cases of illness from the virus, which has been blamed for severe birth defects. NPR's Jason Beaubien is with us to talk about how Zika is expected to travel through the Americas. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: Would you tell us about the illness that comes from the Zika virus?

BEAUBIEN: The interesting thing is that in the past, this wasn't considered to be much of a threat. You weren't getting very many human cases and when people were getting sick, it was really quite benign. You're getting sort of a mild flu. But now you've got health authorities in Brazil saying that since May of last year, they've recorded roughly 1 million cases of this infection, which is a huge amount for Zika. And they've found what they believe are about 4,000 cases of severe brain damage - this thing called microcephaly in which the brain and the head don't fully develop. And so there's great concern that there's this link. That hasn't been completely proven, but people in some health authorities in Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, have been encouraging women to hold off even getting pregnant because of the concern about what this virus could do. And there's also a concern that microcephaly - this very, very visible form of brain damage - might just be sort of the tip of the iceberg. There's the potential that there's other brain damage with less severe forms that we're just not seeing yet.

MONTAGNE: And what do we know about how it's spread?

BEAUBIEN: So it's a mosquito-borne virus. And people are getting bitten in one part of the world and then flying somewhere else. This is not the mosquitoes flapping their little wings and going from Brazil up to Mexico. This has got to do with our modern transportation infrastructure. And that is why it's spreading so rapidly throughout the hemisphere. People get on a plane in Brazil, they may not even have any symptoms, but they're capable of spreading it in another place where these mosquitoes are present and start an outbreak in a new place.

MONTAGNE: Well, then how does one reduce the risk - and especially, obviously, mothers-to-be?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, there's no vaccine. There's no treatment. The only way to keep from getting this is to stop the mosquitoes from biting people - either to deal with the mosquito breeding areas, things like that, or to wear DEET and stay in places where there's air-conditioning and screens.

MONTAGNE: A little scary since we know how hard it is to keep from being bitten by mosquitoes, you know, when they're around. But what is the degree of risk then?

BEAUBIEN: So if you're a pregnant woman, there's a degree of risk. If you're going to be traveling to Central or South America or the Caribbean right now - and you have to understand that tour companies are very worried about the potential hit that this could be to them. We've got the Olympics coming up in Brazil. You know, are we going to see this happen in the United States? That is the big question. The mosquitoes that are capable of transmitting it are present in the United States. They also are capable of spreading dengue and chikungunya, however, we have not seen large outbreaks of dengue and chikungunya. So theoretically, we could get Zika spreading throughout parts of the southern United States where these mosquitoes are present. And that is the great concern - that it will get a foothold here, and we could have ongoing transmission here inside the United States.

MONTAGNE: But it hasn't yet.

BEAUBIEN: But it hasn't yet, and it might not.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Jason Beaubien. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.