Colombia’s National Health Institute has announced the deaths of three people from a rare neurological disorder called Guillain-Barre syndrome, which the victims are thought to have developed after becoming infected with the Zika virus.
Guillain-Barre syndrome often occurs as a response to a viral or bacterial infection, which can cause the body’s immune system to attack nerve cells in the peripheral nervous system. Since this system includes the motor neurons used to control muscle movement, the condition can lead to paralysis or even death in particularly severe cases.
It has not yet been confirmed whether or not the victims developed the condition as a result of contracting Zika, although Colombian health minister Alejandro Gaviria has said there is a “causal connection” between the Zika and the three deaths.
The virus has been linked to the recent explosion of microcephaly cases across Latin America in recent months, with the majority of these having occurred in Brazil – which neighbors Colombia. This is a condition whereby babies are born with shrunken heads and often small brains, although as with Guillain-Barre, the link between microcephaly and Zika has not yet been confirmed.
Primarily a mosquito-borne disease, Zika is thought to have infected around 1.5 million people in Brazil so far, and has been connected to more than 400 confirmed cases of microcephaly since October, as well as more than 3,600 suspected cases. Alarmingly, it has recently been detected in the urine and saliva of infected individuals, suggesting that it may also be transmitted through bodily fluids. This, however, has not yet been verified.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recently announced that it believes a person in Texas became infected with the virus as a result of sexual intercourse, leading health officials to advise against engaging in unsafe sex in areas where Zika is prominent. Some have even warned that the virus could be transferred by kissing.
Though many questions remain unanswered as to how the virus is transmitted and what effects it has, these latest developments raise a number of concerns regarding Brazil’s famous Carnival, which attracts huge numbers of people from across the globe and is currently taking place across the country.
In addition to practising safe sex, people are being urged to take a number of measures to avoid becoming infected with the virus, such as sleeping under mosquito nets and using insect repellant. In addition, government officials in some Latin American nations have advised women avoid becoming pregnant until the epidemic is brought under control, while the United Nations has urged governments to provide increased access to abortion facilities.