Research Groups

ICGEB Zika virus Working Group

Oscar Burrone, PhD, Group Leader, Molecular Immunology, ICGEB Trieste

Navin Khanna, PhD, Group Leader, Recombinant Gene Products, ICGEB New Delhi

Alessandro Marcello, PhD, Group Leader, Molecular Virology, ICGEB Trieste

Sujatha Sunil, PhD, Group Leader, Vector Borne Diseases, ICGEB New Delhi


Link to latest news updates

Facts about Zika virus

Zika fever is caused by an arbovirus (a virus transmitted by insects) belonging to the flavivirus genus of the Flaviviridae family, like dengue virus, tick-borne encephalitis, west Nile virus and yellow fever. The insect vector of the disease is the female mosquito of Aedes aegypti, which originated in Africa. Aedes albopictus (or the tiger mosquito from Asia) could also transmits the Zika virus, as it already does for dengue and chikungunya viruses. There is no vaccine or treatment for Zika virus infection.

The Zika virus was detected for the first time in a monkey in Uganda in 1947. The first human cases appeared in the 1970s in Africa (Uganda, Tanzania, Egypt, Central African Republic, Sierra Leone, Gabon and Senegal) and then in some countries in Asia (India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia). The actual epidemic broke out in 2007 in Micronesia (Yap Islands in the Pacific Ocean). In 2013 and 2014, 55,000 cases of Zika were reported in French Polynesia. The epidemic then spread to other islands in the Pacific, namely New Caledonia, the Cook Islands and Easter Island. The Zika virus was detected for the first time in the northwest of Brazil in May 2015 and it quickly spread to other regions of the country. Brazil has declared the highest number of Zika cases ever recorded. The virus is spreading to Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela and Honduras. Neighboring countries are at great risk, including Argentina because Zika virus could spread to the regions where the Aedes mosquito is endemic and where people already infected could initiate the virus cycle. Europe experienced several imported cases of Zika infection from travellers. However, since Aedes albopictus is present in Southern Europe, including Italy, there is a potential risk in the forthcoming Summer season.

A mosquito becomes infected with the virus during a blood meal when it bites a person with Zika fever. The virus multiplies in the mosquito without affecting the insect. Then, when the mosquito next bites, it releases the virus into the bloodstream of another person. Symptoms appear 3 to 12 days after the bite but, during this time, the person can infect other mosquitoes if they are bitten again. This is why people suffering from Zika must avoid getting bitten to break the viral transmission cycle.

Most people infected with the virus do not develop any symptoms. In the rest of the population, the symptoms caused by the Zika virus are flu-like. Skin rash could be observed as well as swelling of the hands or feet. In most cases, the symptoms are mild and do not require hospital treatment. These symptoms are similar to those of dengue and chikungunya infections, thus complicating the diagnosis.

Complications include the Guillain-Barré syndrome, a progressive ascending paralysis, which could affect the respiratory muscles.   Pregnant women can pass on the virus to their unborn children and this can lead to serious fetal brain development defects. In early 2016, reports began to emerge from Brazil of an unusually high number of babies born with abnormally small heads – a condition called microcephaly. There have been around 4,000 cases reported since October 2015, compared with the few hundred a year that Brazil normally experiences. Health authorities investigating this unexplained increase noticed that the spike in cases overlapped with the areas experiencing the Zika outbreak, suggesting a possible link between the virus and microcephaly.

Further information:

World Health Organization Zika virus Fact sheet

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