RECIFE, BRAZIL - JANUARY 26: Aedes aegypti mosquitos are seen in a lab at the Fiocruz institute on January 26, 2016 in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil. The mosquito transmits the Zika virus and is being studied at the institute. In the last four months, authorities have recorded close to 4,000 cases in Brazil in which the mosquito-borne Zika virus may have led to microcephaly in infants. The ailment results in an abnormally small head in newborns and is associated with various disorders including decreased brain development. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the Zika virus outbreak is likely to spread throughout nearly all the Americas. At least twelve cases in the United States have now been confirmed by the CDC. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Photo: Mario Tama
Photo: Mario Tama

Experts: Zika may be bigger threat than Ebola

The most recent Ebola outbreak, which originated in west Africa in 2014, killed 11,000 people on the continent and frightened Americans nationwide.

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But now the World Heath Organization has said a different disease could pose an even bigger threat than the Ebola outbreak: the Zika virus.

The Zika outbreak, which originated in Latin America last year, has already infected over 1.5 million people with most local transmissions occurring in Brazil and elsewhere in Central and South America. Eighty-two cases have been reported in the U.S. by travelers returning from countries where the virus has been transmitted locally.

“In many ways the Zika outbreak is worse than the Ebola epidemic of 2014-15,” said Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trustan independent global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health. “Most virus carriers are symptomless. It is a silent infection in a group of highly vulnerable individuals – pregnant women – that is associated with a horrible outcome for their babies.”

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The WHO declared Zika an international public health emergency on Feb. 1. 

President Obama has already asked Congress to dedicate $1.8 billion to combat the virus.

And there are still many questions about the virus.

“This emergency is because of what’s unknown,” said David Heymann, an infectious-disease professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and chairman of the expert committee that urged WHO to call a global health emergency. “The Ebola emergency was because of what was known.”

>> How to prevent the Zika virus infection

Zika, transmitted through mosquito bites, has recently been linked to a congenital condition that causes newborns to have unusually small heads. Microcephaly, the name of the defect, causes smaller than normal cerebrums in babies and improperly developed brains. Symptoms of the virus include fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes.

Despite comparisons to Ebola, Zika is not fatal. In fact, infected people, of which only 20 percent show symptoms, usually clear the effects in fewer than 10 days. Still, there no promising vaccine in the works for Zika currently. Several are under trial for Ebola.

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“The real problem is that trying to develop a vaccine that would have to be tested on pregnant women is a practical and ethical nightmare,” said Mike Turner, head of infection and immuno-biology at the Wellcome Trust.

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