The Zika virus was first discovered in the 1940s, though most people had never heard of it until this year. That’s because for decades, Zika outbreaks were sporadic and tiny, and the disease seemed to do little harm.
That changed in 2015. A massive outbreak in Brazil — affecting more than 1 million people — has changed our view of the mosquito-borne virus. Scientists are learning that Zika may actually be a lot more dangerous than anyone thought, potentially damaging the brains of fetuses and causing incurable and lifelong health and cognitive problems. In light of this evidence, the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency on February 1.
Meanwhile, the virus has been spreading throughout the Western Hemisphere at a rapid rate, carried by a type of mosquito that feeds on and thrives alongside humans. More than 20 countries are currently battling outbreaks, and Zika is expected to reach nearly every corner of the Americas this year (save for Canada and Chile, which aren’t home to the mosquito in question). Odds are you’ll be hearing a lot more about Zika in the coming weeks and months.
1) I’d never heard of Zika. Is it a new virus?
Zika is actually an old virus — it’s only recently that health experts have been seriously worried. It was first discovered in 1947 when it isolated from monkeys in the Zika forest in Uganda. And for decades thereafter, it barely bothered humans.