Active Zika virus transmission in France

29 Oct 2019 | Back to News, Publications and Annual Reports



The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control reports first cases of Zika virus transmission in Europe. For those who forgot about Zika virus, a short summary.

In 1947 an entomologist and a virologist in Uganda investigated the mosquito that transmits Yellow Fever virus. By chance they discovered a new mosquito-borne virus. Since the forest where they did the finding was named Zika forest they named the virus Zika virus. It would take another 70 years before this virus would get media attention again. This time not for the good.

Baby’s with congenital brain disorders

In 2015 Brazil faced an increase of children were born with small heads.  At first the cause was not clear but in 2016 it became obvious that Zika virus had something to do with it. All mothers were infected with Zika virus during pregnancy. Pregnant women and women who planned to get pregnant were advised not to travel to Zika affected areas and women who lived in the affected areas were even advised to postpone pregnancy.

Now, a few years later we know much more about the virus. Scientists unraveled how the virus works and how it enters the developing brain of unborn babies. But there is still no cure.

Also when you are not pregnant you can fall ill with Zika virus, but there is only a small chance.  About one in ten seeks medical attention. Most people are not even aware of the infection but although they are not sick, they can spread the virus. When a mosquito feeds itself on these people it becomes infected with the virus and may infect others during a next blood feed.  

Zika virus in Europe

And now the news by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control that Zika arrived in Europe. Two people who do not know one another visited their family doctor in the south of France. They reported symptoms associated with Zika disease (skin rash, pain behind the eyes and fever). Laboratory test confirmed that it was Zika virus infection.

It was not the first time that Zika virus was found in Europe but the previous cases were all linked to travel histories to Zika affected areas. In the Netherlands a few hundred cases were diagnosed last year. But the cases that are now identified in France cannot be linked to a stay in a Zika area and that it is very likely these patients became infected in France. This means that there are Zika infected tiger mosquitoes living in the region between Marseille and Nice that can actively transmit the virus.

Spreading Zika virus

The world  is changing. We travel more often and along with us mosquitoes and viruses emerge. It is therefore a matter of time until mosquito-borne viruses are everywhere. The World Health Organization says we need to prepare for that and develop vaccines and drugs. That is why the European Union finances research to these type of viruses.

BPRC also contributes to this. Among other things by testing whether new experimental vaccines can protect us against infection of, for example, the Yellow Fever virus, West Nile virus and of course the Zika virus.

Zika research in monkeys

In Brazil, the increase of babies born with smaller heads coincided with a Zika epidemic. This does however not automatically mean there is a causal relation between the two. The formal proof came from the US, where an experimental Zika virus infection of a pregnant macaque resulted in malformed brains of the fetus.

From this moment on it is 100% proven that Zika virus can cause birth defects.

Vaccines and drugs

At this moment Zika research focusses mainly on prevention. How can we protect future moms and their unborn babies from Zika virus infection. That is why BPRC collaborates with other research groups to work on Zika vaccines.