As It Happens

Doctor who helped discover Zika paints a bleak picture of what's to come

When Brazilian doctor Ernesto Marques saw the first signs of what eventually would become the Zika virus, he didn't think much of it. Then he started to see a link to brain defects in newborns. He also saw it spreading.
An Aedes aegypti mosquito is photographed through a microscope at the Fiocruz institute in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil (Felipe Dana/Associated Press)

When Brazilian doctor Ernesto Marques saw the first signs of what eventually would become the Zika virus, he didn't think much of it. Then he started to see a link to brain defects in newborns. He also saw it spreading.

Now the World Health Organization says the mosquito-borne Zika virus could infect four million people in the Americas this year. The Zika virus is believed to cause microcephaly, a rare brain defect in babies.

 "I would say most women are postponing their plans to start a family."- Ernesto Marque

Marques, an associate professor in Vaccine Research at the University of Pittsburgh, believes the WHO's predictions are accurate.

"It's as good an estimate as anyone can get," he tells As It Happens host Carol Off.

The link between Zika and birth defects was first noticed last year by two neuro-paediatricians who work in Recife, Brazil — the epicentre of the outbreak.

They started comparing notes on the amounts of microcephaly they were seeing. The doctors contacted a virologist who did the math and realized the babies were in the first trimester of development at the same time the Zika virus was first peaking.

Most of the countries affected by the virus are in Central and South America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (CBC)

In the Brazilian state of Pernambuco, there were 150,000 births last year and approximately 1,100 cases of microcephaly.

"I don't know how confident you are in not getting a mosquito bite" says Marques, "I would say most women [in the area] are postponing their plans to start a family."

Dr. Ernesto Marques is one of the doctors who first identified the Zika virus in Brazil (http://www.cvr.pitt.edu/)

Marques says a vaccine isn't likely soon. 

"It all depends on how much money is invested," he says. "We need more effort in funding and organization to get the response ready quickly."

WHO director general Dr. Margaret Chan says Zika is now a threat of "alarming proportions" and announced a special meeting of the WHO on Feb. 1 to decide if Zika should be declared a global emergency.

Canadian Blood Services is expected to announce they will stop accepting blood donations from people returning from countries hit by the Zika virus. Full details will be released in the coming days.

Since the mosquitoes that carry and transmit the virus do not live in Canada due to the climate, health authorities expect only travel-related cases in this country.

With files from CBC News

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