In the history of the world it has been the tiniest of insects that have wreaked the most havoc. Flies, fleas, ticks and mosquitoes have been carriers of death. Just as we conquer one of the many diseases that they impart to humans, another one comes along. Today the disease that is baffling scientists is Zika which was first discovered in Africa in 1947. It is carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito which also is responsible for spreading yellow fever, dengue fever, and other infectious diseases. It is believed that Zika jumped from Africa to Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia in the nineteen seventies. By 2007 it was found in Micronesia and from there made its way to French Polynesia. By 2015 it began to show up in Brazil where it is now an epidemic.
Most people don’t even notice that they have the Zika virus. In its most severe forms it causes a rash, inflammation of the eyes, flu-like symptoms, painful joints and a fever. Very rarely it causes Guillian-Barre Syndrome which causes paralysis and even death. The biggest problem with Zika occurs when pregnant women catch the disease. It has been closely linked to microencephaly in fetuses, resulting in smaller than normal brain size in the babies. This can lead to developmental problems in the growing child.
The outbreak of the Zika virus is so bad right now in Brazil that the government has suggested that women delay getting pregnant until the government can get the epidemic under control. Since the first reports of an outbreak in Brazil there have been twenty five other South American and Caribbean countries who have found evidence of the disease within their borders, prompting U.S. officials to warn travelers not to plan trips to certain areas. Only those countries with generally cold weather are deemed to be safe from spread of the virus and researchers note that it is poised to explode in Mexico and then proceed into the southern United States. Some of the affected countries are Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Columbia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guadeloupe, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, Surinam, and Venezuela.
Anyone bitten by an infected mosquito becomes a carrier of the virus. When a disease free mosquito bites such a person they then become a carrier as well and so goes the progression. Scientists note that there are probably already people in Texas who unknowingly carry the virus.
One way of controlling the disease is to fumigate affected areas and to get rid of standing pools of water where mosquitoes breed. The government of Brazil is assuring the Olympic committee that they have a plan in place to prevent an outbreak of the disease in the Olympic Village this summer but some officials are worried that with even the best security measures it will be impossible to curtail the effect of Zika.
One of the least known aspects of the fight to control the Zika virus is that the University of Texas Medical School in Galveston is the center of a major research study hoping to find a vaccine. Deep in the bowels of the school researchers are racing against the clock by studying 23 different varieties mosquitoes from 12 different countries. They are housed in airlocks behind both screens and glass. Super precautions are being taken to insure that they will not escape into the general population of Galveston or infect the scientists who are studying them.
Scientists believe that they will have found the key to a vaccine within one to two years but then the immunizations will have to be tested for safety and that will take up to ten years. Unfortunately the World Health Organization is concerned that the epidemic will grow to worldwide proportions before any cures will be found. Some even see Zika as the next pandemic and predict that it may next travel to Asia. With no vaccine or drug treatment it will hit most countries quite hard.
One of the doctors with an intimate knowledge of the virus has stated that if he had a daughter of child bearing age he would urge her to stay away from the areas that have been the most affected. Sadly the people in those countries too often live in the very conditions that expose them to catching the illness. Unlike their United States counterparts few of them have windows and air conditioning to keep the insects out of their homes. Furthermore they too often have no way to drain ditches and low lying areas that breed the mosquitoes, nor is birth control always easily found. The worry is that there will be a generation afflicted with the effects of the Zika virus.
There is some evidence that the Zika virus may also be spread by semen and saliva, although there has yet to be ironclad proof that this is so. If that is the case, it is possible that anyone who has been bitten by the mosquito could become a carrier as well without the help of mosquitos. This of course, would make it even more difficult to control. The possible scenarios are frightening and have researchers quite concerned.
For now the best way to avoid the virus is to wear insect repellent when outdoors in mosquito infested areas, use long sleeved clothing, and keep windows closed. There has been no confirmation of a Zika epidemic in the United States but nobody knows what might happen this summer, so everyone should follow this story closely and use the same precautions against mosquito bites that they always would. It might also be a good idea to say a few prayers for the people in the areas that have been the most hard hit. It is quite sad to imagine the possible outcomes of a major pandemic.