The Zika virus isn't new. The mosquito-borne illness has been around for decades. It was first identified in 1947 in Uganda in Rhesus monkeys and subsequently discovered in humans in 1952, according to the World Health Organization. Yet, the virus is receiving more attention than ever before. So what is the hype about? Why is everyone so worried about Zika?
The first reported outbreak of Zika from the Pacific occurred in 2007, according to WHO. Then, large outbreaks in French Polynesia and Brazil struck in 2013 and 2015. Last November, a possible link between Zika and a rise in birth defects was identified, according to The Lancet, a science and research journal. From that point forward, concern skyrocketed.
But the issue is multifaceted, and many are understandably confused about Zika and its connection to pregnancy, birth defects, reproductive rights and so on. Vox asked several experts to help distill the facts from the noise.
What is the Zika virus, and why am I hearing so much about it?
Zika is an illness with symptoms similar to chikungunya and dengue, says Dr. Christelle Ilboudo, pediatric and infectious disease specialist at University Hospital. Before 2013, Zika outbreaks were often small.
Now, Zika has spread throughout 30 countries and territories in the Americas, Africa and the Pacific Islands, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The virus became a source of panic on Feb. 1 when WHO Director-General, Dr. Margaret Chan, announced a strong connection between the virus and infant birth defects. A Public Health Emergency of International Concern was proclaimed in the same press statement.
How and why has Zika spread?
Blame Aedes aegypti, aka mosquitos. Typically making the tropics their home, this species of mosquito is particularly pesky because its resilient, Ilboudo says. They require minimal water to lay their eggs. They love human blood. And they’re active day or night, unlike other varieties of mosquitoes that only appear around dawn or dusk. According to the CDC, Aedes aegypti are difficult to eradicate because they’re likely adapting to environmental change.
While mosquito bites are the common method of infection, the virus can be spread from mother to fetus, and that is what's causing the current concern. There have also been reports of spreading via blood transfusions and sexual transmission according to the CDC. However, research to confirm the latter methods is still developing.
How would the city of Columbia deal with a Zika outbreak?
In the case of a Zika outbreak, it likely would be handled similarly to an outbreak of West Nile virus, Kala Wekenborg-Tomka says. Wekenborg-Tomka is the environmental public health supervisor at Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services. West Nile, like Zika, is also mosquito-borne. And Columbia has a mosquito program in place: Officials spray for mosquitoes every summer, especially along areas such as the MKT Trail.
However, if the CDC determines different prevention methods are better suited, the city Health Department will make adjustments accordingly. The Health Department uses the CDC and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services as a guide for health-related information.
Bottom line: What are the risks for contracting Zika here?
Although it’s unlikely that Zika will cause large outbreaks in the U.S. because of healthcare access and mass production of insecticide, there is a possibility it will travel here via human visitors or mosquitoes.
A Vox Media article from Feb. 3 reported there’s some experimental evidence that a cousin of Aedes aegypti, Aedes albopictus, might transmit the virus, too. If this is the case, the possibility of the Zika virus reaching Columbia would be greater. The Aedes albopictus mosquito covers at least 32 states in the U.S., including Missouri.
What are the symptoms?
The majority of patients who contract Zika are asymptomatic, according to the website Contemporary OB/GYN, and only about 20 percent of patients show mild symptoms. These include headaches, fever, skin rash, and muscle and joint pain, among others, Ilboudo says.
The far more worrisome factor in Zika cases is the connection to neurological diseases, such as microcephaly, in infants born to women who have contracted Zika.
Microcephaly is a birth defect in which babies are born with a smaller-than-average head. Depending on the degree of size difference, the infant can develop neurological difficulties, including severe learning and cognition defects, Ilboudo says. They can also experience seizures, problems with movement and balance, feeding problems, and issues with hearing and vision, according to the CDC. In January, Vox Media reported that about 15 percent of babies born with microcephaly have normal levels of intelligence.
Why do I keep hearing ‘Zika’ and ‘microcephaly’ in the same sentence?
It’s all about correlation. As the number of cases of Zika virus in Brazil grew in 2015, health officials noticed an increase in babies born with microcephaly. That country's Ministry of Health has reported more than 4,000 cases, 20 times more than usual. But here's the caveat: While the connection between Zika and microcephaly is strongly suspected, experts have not yet proven that Zika virus causes microcephaly.
How does the Zika virus affect travel?
The CDC has issued a travel notice for people travelling to regions affected by Zika virus, especially pregnant women or women who think they will become pregnant. Pregnant women are advised to postpone travel to these areas, and those who do travel should talk to their doctors and try to avoid mosquito bites throughout the duration of the trip.
What are South and Latin American countries advising women about the Zika virus?
Health officials in El Salvador recently recommended women not to get pregnant until 2018, according to The New York Times. Other countries, including Colombia, Ecuador and Jamaica, also recommended delaying pregnancies.
Are these pregnancy recommendations problematic?
Many women in developing countries don’t have access to contraception, says Rebecca Martinez, an MU women’s and gender studies professor. Poor women in particular have a hard time finding and affording preventative measures, she says. And according to the Guttmacher Institute, this is especially true in countries such as El Salvador, where abortion is illegal.
Martinez also feels the recommendations point out nuanced issues of reproductive rights. Some of these women are in partnerships plagued by domestic violence and can’t necessarily convince their partners to wear a condom, she says. Others don’t have access to adequate health care. Yet the responsibility is put on them rather than their male partners or their governments, which could attack poverty and make structural changes that allow women to reproduce safely, Martinez says. “If we don’t understand the context of women’s lives, none of this is going to be helpful.”
Is there a cure for Zika?
There is currently no available vaccine for Zika virus, according to WHO. Ilboudo says experts are working on a vaccine, but because “viruses are tricky,” it might be several years before one is developed. “We have to understand what it does before we can prevent what it does,” she says.
However, there is good news for those looking to get pregnant in the future. Zika virus usually remains in the blood of an infected person for about a week, according to the CDC. The virus won’t cause any infection in a fetus conceived after the virus disappears from the bloodstream.
How can the spread of Zika be prevented?
The most viable solution to stop the spread of Zika is not as advanced as you’d think: good old-fashioned bug spray. Ilboudo suggested people, especially young women, wear long sleeves and lots of insect repellent in areas with mosquitoes. Use mosquito nets when sleeping near standing water. And, if at all possible, stay out of areas where the Aedes aegypti mosquito lives.
Genetic engineers are also working to prevent Zika from spreading. According to The Lancet, a genetic control strategy is in development that would involve genetically modifying Aedes aegypti to express a lethal gene. This means that, without a dietary supplement that represses the gene, these mosquitoes die before they reach adulthood. Companies such as British firm Oxitec are testing this concept by releasing genetically modified male mosquitoes into the wild to mate with females, thus passing the killing gene onto their offspring. The result: lots of dead mosquitoes. And a dramatically reduced population of Aedes aegypti.
But this method is still in early development stages, and while there’s been some success, there’s no guarantee genetic modification is Zika’s savior. There’s still much unknown about this virus, and as always, scientists have their work cut out for them.