Before the Zika virus was a household name, it was a relatively unknown and rare disease. Zika virus infections are similar to dengue and yellow fever in humans and were once isolated to a tiny part of Africa. And for the researchers who discovered it, naming Zika was easy, maybe even a bit boring.
The scientists were studying in the Zika Forest, located near Lake Victoria in Uganda. The novel virus was extracted and examined from a sick rhesus monkey. But, the question of how the virus appeared in the monkey wouldn’t be answered until the following year. It was then that researchers found the virus again in mosquitoes in the Zika Forest. The christening of Zika happened in 1947, but it took another five years to find it in humans, the first case being in 1952 in Uganda. The first outbreak was nearly two decades later, in 1968, in Nigeria. But even still, Zika had many years before it would break the mold.
Until around 1980, cases of human infections were sporadic and generally only found in parts of Africa and Asia. Dr. Marcos Espinal, the director of infectious diseases of the World Health Organization, says that before 2007, “there have only been about 14 or 15 cases documented.”
The Zika virus infection is usually mild, exhibiting fever, rash, muscle or joint pain, and headaches. The symptoms last for a few days or up to a week, and while there can be neurological complications or issues with pregnancy, most people experience Zika with minor short or long-term health problems.
The mildness of the virus became a bit of an issue, however. Because of these milder symptoms, the virus was able to spread intensely during the 2007 Zika pandemic. Despite the virus’s reputation, most people – up to almost eighty percent – with Zika virus infection don’t develop symptoms at all. On top of this, Zika transmission can occur through sexual intercourse. All of these factors ended up making Zika very difficult to contain.
Zika starts to make a name by tearing through parts of the world at a breakneck speed. The modern outbreaks of Zika that we’re more familiar with started with an outbreak reported on the Island of Yap in 2007. This initial outbreak created a chain reaction in the Pacific, and by March 2015, Brazil began to report cases of Zika virus infection. Later that year, outbreaks and transmission appeared throughout the Americas, Africa, and many other parts of the world. So far, roughly 86 countries and territories have reported Zika virus infections. The Zika virus pandemic was in full swing, and that forest in Africa became immortalized in the vernacular of modern society.
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Written for Passport Health by CJ Darnieder. CJ is a freelance writer and editor in Chicago. He is an avid lover of classical music and stand-up comedy and loves to write both in his spare time.