The Zika virus has been confirmed to be circulating in Africa for the first time. The World Health Organisation (WHO) confirmed this on Friday after the virus was sequenced from a sample from Cape Verde.
Cape Verde is an archipelago off the north coast of Africa. Zika was first discovered in Africa in 1947 and until the past year it was thought to cause only mild symptoms with no known link with brain or birth disorders.
The Africa Director of the World Health Organization, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, said the findings are of concern because it is further proof that the outbreak is spreading beyond South America and is on the doorstep of Africa. The mosquito-transmitted virus is known to cause neurological disorders and birth abnormalities in Brazil with babies being born with small brains.
She said the information would help African countries to re-evaluate their level of risk and adapt and increase their levels of preparedness. Dr Moeti however said she would not recommend strict travel restrictions to try to stop the spread of the disease. She also said African countries should raise awareness among pregnant women of the complications with the Zika virus and encourage people to protect themselves against mosquito bites and sexual transmission.
As of May 8, there had been 7,557 suspected cases of Zika in Cape Verde, with 180 pregnant women thought to have been infected. The WHO says three babies have been born brain damaged with microcephaly.
Until the virus was sequenced by scientists in Senegal, it was not certain if the outbreak in Cape Verde was caused by the African or Asian type, which has hit Brazil and other Latin American countries. Tests show that this is the Asian strain – the same as the one blamed for birth abnormalities in Brazil.
There have been around 1,300 confirmed cases of babies born with small brains, microcephaly, in Brazil, with thousands more under investigation. A UK researcher said the Zika virus has been circulating at a low level in African countries for more than 50 years, implying that some of the population may already be immune.