The Zika virus seems to be a case of dÃ©jÃ vu for many. We all remember hearing about the Ebola virus on the other side of the world. Many of us at ACU also remember the powerful, terrifying experience alumnus Dr. Kent Brantly recounted in the fall of 2014.
Just like Ebola, we in America are just now hearing about this incurable virus. We should not start freaking out or closing our borders, but we should be aware of two things. One, how to properly and reasonably protect ourselves against it and, two, be aware of the larger issue in the delay of funding and awareness for these diseases, and how it affects the eventual spread.
Zika can be transmitted sexually and by mosquitos directly. 80 percent of people who contract the virus never show symptoms, and for those who do, it is usually very mild (likely adding to the rapid spreading of the virus). So far the biggest risk for adults who show symptoms is Guillain-Barre syndrome, a neurological disorder that ends in paralysis or death. Pregnant women (and women who are trying to get pregnant) are by far the most at-risk; they should be aware of the pregnancy complications including a link to an increased chance of the baby developing microcephaly. Microcephaly is a serious, often fatal, condition where newborn’s heads are underdeveloped and significantly smaller than average. This leads to a variety of health conditions including seizures, intellectual disabilities, and hearing and vision problems.
The number of deaths related to Zika is unclear at this time because of the lack of research. Brazil has been the most affected by far, with 1.5 million reported cases. Venezuela has recorded 255 cases of Guillain-Barre, and the WHO called the 20-fold rise in birth-defects linked to Zika “an international emergency.” Dozens of cases are being reported every day.
Zika began, and spread, in tropical climates in Africa and southern Asia. Until very recently, the disease was mostly among poor communities: those without mosquito nets, window screens, contraception, and quality medical care. The CDC (Center for Disease Control) was not willing to give out grants for scientists who have been studying Zika until very recently, when the virus began “spreading explosively.”
In a Wired story titled These Scientists Saw Zika Coming. Now They’re Fighting Back, at The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, several strains of Zika “have spent years in the reference center, to little attention.”
Another reason for the lag in research funding specifically on Zika is that the virus, and the mosquitos who carry it, are often mistaken for more known diseases such as yellow fever and dengue. A scientist in the Wired article who has been watching Zika, Scott Weaver, said, “Frankly it would have been impossible for me or anyone else to get grant to work on Zika.” The article also points out that The National Institutes of Health had never funded a grant dedicated to it before this month.
Brazil’s government has admitted to not testing for the Zika virus, but now many more countries, as well as private and governmental organizations are in a mad dash to test and contain the virus. With a more mobile world than ever, cases are popping up in the Caribbean, more Latin American countries, and in the U.S., especially in pregnant women. If organizations such as the CDC had funded research on the Zika virus once it became a known, live threat, we may not be dealing with the level of dying babies, panic, or rushed research we now face. Unknown, rapidly spreading diseases are inevitable, but one can only hope that our more advanced, global community will learn to prepare for them and support the fight against them.