By: Emily Davis
In early February, the World Health Organization declared the Zika Virus a “world health emergency of international concern”– a threat level not raised since the 2014 outbreak of Ebola. First identified in Uganda in 1947, the Zika virus is an arboviral disease spread by Aedes mosquitoes, the same tropical bugs that spread Dengue and Chikungunya. The incubation period is unknown, but it’s likely to last from a few days to a week. Only one in five affected individuals show signs of illness, which may include fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis. Symptoms, if present, last several days to a week, and hospitalizations and deaths are extremely rare.
During the first week of infection, Zika is in the victim’s blood and can spread to other mosquitos that bite them. The virus can also be spread to an infected mother’s unborn baby. Further transmission, such as sexual, is only theorized. The constant unknowns brought up in the discussion of Zika highlights just how little the medical community knows about the virus. Although it’s easily tested for, there is no vaccine for the virus. Aedes mosquitoes, unlike those that transmit malaria, are primarily active during the day time. This means the growth of the virus can not be impeded by mosquito nets. Doctors can only prescribe bed rest, water, and pain relievers.
Zika has become internationally notable for its sudden spike in growth, and its potential link to the birth defect microcephaly, which has affected thousands of newborns particularly in the Americas. Microcephaly stunts the brian growth of the fetus and it is born with an abnormally small head, causing potential mental, developmental, and physical disabilities in the child. Tom Friedan, director of the Center for Disease Control, stated that scientists are confident that there is an association between the Zika virus and microcephaly. In a recent report by National Public Radio, a medical team at Roberto Santos General Hospital in Brazil has found specific, unique markers in babies with microcephaly in cases of Zika, such as stiff upper body and neck. This further corroborates a causative relationship between the two that is yet to be concretely proven.
Prior to 2015, the main outbreak areas of Zika were located in Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Pacific Islands. In May 2015, the Pan American Health Organization issued an alert that the first infections of Zika had been identified in Brazil. Countries with active transmissions are now located in the Americas, Africa, and Pacific Islands.
According to the CDC, no locally transmitted Zika cases have been reported in the continental United States, although they have been reported in returning travelers. The CDC stated that “with recent outbreaks, the number of Zika cases among travelers visiting or returning to the United States will likely increase,” but they also stated that “limited local transmission may occur in the mainland United States, but it’s unlikely that we will see widespread transmission of Zika in the mainland U.S.”. They reported that there have been 107 travel-associated Zika cases found in the U.S. — not including territories. U.S. territories in tropical areas are considered at-risk, such as American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
At its height, the similarly transmitted Dengue fever never spread locally within the US and was rarely contracted by US travelers. The United States is at a much lower risk of experiencing these arboviral epidemics due to a variety of social and economic factors. Americans tend to live further apart than people in Brazil, where Zika is most prevalent. They also have much higher access to air conditioning and generally experience cooler weather.
Despite the country’s lack of serious vulnerability to the virus, the panic that accompanies international epidemics still pervades citizen’s fears. However, these are understandably pervasive in pregnant women who unknowingly put their unborn children at risk while traveling outside of the U.S. So far, the CDC reportedly received over 250 requests by pregnant women in the U.S. seeking tests for Zika. Currently, 97% tested negative.
In a concentrated study, the CDC tracked nine positively tested, pregnant women, all of which recently traveled to one of the more than 24 affected countries. Six of the women contracted the virus in their first trimester; two of which experienced miscarriages and two underwent abortions after consulting their medical professionals. Two women contracted Zika in their second trimester, one of which gave birth to a healthy baby and the other remains pregnant. The woman in her third trimester gave birth to healthy infant as well. Studies are yet to reveal why the risks are higher at certain periods in pregnancy, but this initial study reveals this important connection.
The response to this virus that hardly has a death toll has been dramatic and fervored. The international alarm raises a potential question as to the significance of this virus. Why is there such a heightened response to Zika and so little to Dengue Fever, which was spread by the same mosquito and causes approximately half a million life-threatening infections a year? Dengue fever predominantly affects Africa, while Zika has rising numbers in the Americas. Does Zika’s immediate and pervasive media coverage indicate potential geographic racism and intentional ignorance of crisis in Africa? Or maybe the hype is to do with the high level of uncertainty surrounding the nature of the virus and it’s scary implications for pregnant women. It may also be associated with the approaching summer olympics in Brazil, the area worst affected by the virus. Optimistically though, the international community has learned from it’s mistakes, such as the late response to Ebola, and is taking itself and its epidemics far more seriously.