Zika Virus Could be Storm Cloud on the Horizon

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Published on April 10, 2016

If you’re a pregnant woman and you plan on traveling to a country in South America anytime soon, chances are you’ll be unpacking that suitcase and canceling those plans. And if you’re not a pregnant woman, well, chances are you could still be in danger.

That’s because a potentially life threatening virus linked to birth defects is rapidly spreading through the continent.

In January, the Center for Disease Control issued a travel notice urging pregnant women in any trimester to consider postponing traveling to regions where Zika virus transmission are ongoing. At the writing of this article, 31 countries around the world had reported cases of the virus, including the United States.

According to the CDC about 1 in 5 people infected with the Zika virus will become ill. The most common symptoms are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis. And in most cases, Zika will land a patient in the hospital for about a week.  

But if you’re a pregnant woman or thinking about becoming pregnant, getting infected is a terrifying notion.  

Spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the Zika virus gets its name from a forest in Uganda.

Yellow Fever Mosquito (Aedes aegypti)  Photo by Eye of Science / Photo Researchers / Universal Images Group. Used with permission of Britannica Imagequest.

Yellow Fever Mosquito (Aedes aegypti) Photo by Eye of Science / Photo Researchers / Universal Images Group. Used with permission of Britannica Imagequest.

The word itself translates to ‘overgrown’ and when you look at how quickly the virus has spread through the Americas, it’s more than a fitting name.

Currently, Brazil has the worst outbreak of Zika, with more than one million people infected and more than 4,000 suspected and 400 confirmed cases linked to microcephaly among newborn babies, according to the country’s health minister.

Microcephaly is linked to birth defects in infants which can cause a baby’s head to become abnormally small and may be linked to a congenital condition associated with incomplete brain development.

Currently, there are no vaccines or cures for the Zika virus.

The Zika virus was first reported in Brazil in 2014 and was believed to have entered the country around the same time when the FIFA World Cup was taking place. Brazil is scheduled to host the 2016 Summer Olympics games in Rio in August and with hundreds of thousands of people expected to attend, the potential for Zika transmission among the local populace and those visiting from foreign countries is expected to rise significantly, according to world health officials.  

Zika is transmitted when a mosquito carrying the virus bites a person. In February, health officials in Dallas, Texas said a person carrying the Zika virus had transmitted it to their partner during sexual intercourse. It was the first time on record that the virus had been transmitted sexually.

Officials said the person carrying the virus had just come back to the U.S. from Venezuela where they were bitten by an Aedes aegypti mosquito. State health officials in Florida said a person had been infected with Zika in Jacksonville just a week after the Dallas, TX incident was reported. There are currently five people who have been infected in New York State, all of them contracted the virus through transmission upon traveling to another county.

All together, there are 50 cases of Zika in the U.S. but that number is expected to rise. Several fatalities have been reported in Venezuela and health officials said they are connected to Zika.

Although the aedes aegypti mosquito is commonly found in subtropical regions throughout South America, it is also found in the southern U.S. near the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists said they fear another mosquito, the Aedes albopictus, a distant cousin to the aedes aegypti may be capable of carrying Zika further north from the gulf and eventually into every outlying state.

Housatonic Associate Professor of History Hamish Lutris believes the Zika virus may be different when compared to other viruses that have impacted humans throughout history.

“I think two things make Zika different.” Lutris said,  “First, imagine the horror a couple would feel in knowing that their simple act of natural procreation had produced catastrophic
results. Second, the transmission of Zika appears to be opportunistic as experts believe it may be airborne and now sexually transmitted. That makes it hard to fight off.”

Lutris agrees global events like outbreaks of viruses change or influence social history, and particularly how we develop treatments or cope with infections.

“It makes us scared, and makes us advocate steps that seem to go against all of human nature. Imagine the Center for Disease Control of many countries telling women not to get pregnant for a few years. How does that work?” he asked,  “It’s one thing we won’t stop doing as humans, yet that fear has already changed us and our habits.”

When it comes to combating viruses, Lutris said our track record is pretty shoddy.  In fact, we haven’t cured one yet.  

There is nothing that has ever combatted virus transmission successfully. Viruses are too flexible and adaptable for that. In this case, as in others, the disease will likely run its course and over time, engender responses from the bodies of people affected, just as was the case with the bubonic plague or the swine flu in 1918,” he said.

Lutris said there is little we can do to protect ourselves from transmission, and a scared and vulnerable public often always demands government action. In February, President Obama asked Congress for $1.8 billion to combat the Zika virus.

“Each time there is an outbreak, we are going to find out because the virus will continue to adapt,” Lutris said.“The Center for Disease Control will begin to spend a lot of money on educational campaigns that will fight the virus once it’s already out there, but there is little we can do about it until we know what we are fighting. That’s the really scary part, and that’s why SARS, Avian flu, Swine flu, and all the rest sound these ominous tones, like storm clouds on the horizon. One day, they figure, we’re not going to be so lucky. Maybe that unluckiness will be manifested in Zika, maybe in something else.”