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How to Think About Zika Now
January 24, 2017

How to Think About Zika Now

It surprises many people to learn that the Zika virus was first identified in humans in 1952. On the timeline of diseases, that’s pretty recent. But considering most of us hadn’t heard of Zika until 2015, it feels like a long time ago.

The disease popped up occasionally in humans over the last sixty years. But in 2007, the first real outbreak was identified. A 2013 outbreak was associated with Guillain-Barré syndrome. In 2015, another outbreak in Brazil led to the connection of Zika infection and microcephaly.

A virus carried by Aedes mosquitoes, Zika has a naturally wide range around the globe. By 2016 it was reported in 20 countries in the Americas. Authorities advised pregnant women and their partners to postpone travel to these areas. Some athletes even skipped the 2016 Olympic games in Brazil.

A number of cases in the U.S. have been found in individuals who traveled to areas where Zika was active. Local transmission has now been reported in South Texas and South Florida. This means the virus has set up shop in local mosquitos that can infect people there.

It sounds a little frightening, but what’s the real risk from the Zika virus?

For most of us, it’s not too significant. Up to 80 percent of those infected show no symptoms at all. For almost everyone else, it’s your typical mild viral infection. Low fever, rash, joint pain – all of which resolve within a week.

However, infection with Zika does have the potential to cause more serious consequences for some people.

The first is Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS). This autoimmune disorder results when the body’s own immune system attacks its nervous system. The result is weakness in the arms and legs. Rarely the victim’s ability to breath is affected. It almost always resolves in a couple of months, but very occasionally a lifelong disability can result.

Microcephaly has also been linked to Zika. This is a developmental defect in which the brain does not grow properly and the head is small as a result. Infants born to mothers infected during pregnancy suffer from this complication far more often than those whose mothers were not infected. Infants born with microcephaly have severe neurological deficits and often require a lifetime of care.

The CDC confirmed Zika infection as a cause of microcephaly in April of 2016. Basically, the CDC says this isn’t just a coincidence, Zika is the culprit.

This has led to a number of recommendations for women - and their partners – who are pregnant or may become pregnant. They will be continuously modified as understanding of the disease grows.

In addition, as the virus becomes more widespread, different precautions will be needed. For now, local transmission in the U.S. has been restricted to the southern parts of Florida and Texas. But the range of aedes mosquitos includes the entire southern half of the U.S. Remember that West Nile virus was first detected in New England in 1999. By 2002 it had spread across the entire country to the West coast. The Zika situation has the potential to change just as swiftly.

If Zika does become more widespread avoidance will become more of a challenge. Different precautions will be needed in such circumstances.

There are public health factors that must be considered and employed by local, state, and federal health authorities to minimize the impact of Zika. A large-scale Zika outbreak and its effects on the unborn could be costly in human and economic terms. Until an effective vaccine is developed decisive steps are needed.

A coordinated mosquito control effort must be established. Right now this responsibility falls on local jurisdictions, meaning control may be excellent in one county while the county next door does a poor job of it.

Further, women need ready access to family planning resources. This includes education on how to avoid exposure to the virus as well as affordable and reliable contraception. This is good policy for a number of reasons, but with Zika looming it is critical policy.

What can we do? First, get your house in order – literally. Search for sources of standing water around your home. They are mosquito amusement parks. Eliminate them.

Second, if you or your partner is pregnant or may become pregnant, speak to a physician about how best to protect yourself.

And finally, reach out to elected officials. This is an issue that spans local, state, and national interests, so start making some phone calls to your town council, your state legislators and your Congressional representatives. Ask them to take steps to better control mosquitos and to be sure adequate family planning services are available for women.

This won’t be the last disease that crosses oceans and sets up shop in the U.S. How we respond is critical. We must demand a coordinated effort, based on science, from our elected officials.

Further, we mustn’t panic. Panic leads to poor decisions based on emotions – the kinds of decisions that result in the loss of basic rights. Let’s do what we can to get this one right, so we are more prepared the next time a disease comes knocking on our doors.

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