The truth behind the hysteria over Zika Virus
Online Submission by Sri Gaveen
It seems that every few years, there is a new and imminent peril facing humanity. Last year, Ebola held this dubious title, before which Swine Flu, SARS and a whole panoply of other menacing illness paralyzed us all with fear. Yet over the last weeks, an entirely new virus has seized the headlines, prompting global action and panic across three continents. As you likely heard by now, its name is Zika and even in the bizarre world of viruses it is quite menacing.
It has been known to scientists for over 6 decades, and for much of that time it has been little more than a minor footnote in dreary textbooks. The reason was that compared to its dangerous cousins, Zika seemed essentially harmless. Infection with Zika often produced no symptoms or at worst a mild fever, which was only treated with rest and other home remedies.
However, for the last 2 years the occasional eyebrow was raised as microbiologists started to note that the virus was spreading rapidly around the world. Originally starting off in a narrow belt around the equator in Africa and parts of Asia – it spread rapidly eastward through the islands of the South Pacific, and ultimately to Mexico and onwards to the Caribbean and South America. Though this was concerning, there was no alarm as the virus was essentially harmless and we were all distracted with swine flu and Ebola.
However, in 2016 scientists definitively confirmed that this previously innocent virus was in fact responsible for causing severe birth defects if contracted before or during pregnancy. Specifically it was linked to abnormal brain development and an immune disease called: Gullain-Barre Syndrome.
Previously, when a harmful virus was discovered, the first efforts are to contain it, and isolate the contagion. You’ll recall that during the Ebola crisis, global travel to West Africa was essentially suspended, and we all counted, in horror, as the odd case spread around the world. However, in the case of Zika, it’s effectively too late for these measures. It has already spread throughout the world, and there is no sensible way to isolate such massive areas. So, dear reader, before you head for the hills in a dazed panic – we should consider what exactly can be done about Zika.
In El Salvador, and several other south/central American countries – including Brazil, Jamaica, Ecuador, Honduras and Colombia, governments have taken the bizarre step of asking citizens to avoid getting pregnant until ‘doctors better understand’ the virus. The deputy minister of health in El Salvador even proposed what is perhaps the world’s first moratorium against births for the next 2 years. The consequences to these nations, if such asinine policies actually get implemented into law will be profound. Some axiomatic implications would be a decimated workforce, an impending economy catastrophe as well as other fundamental questions over the use of other basic infrastructures – such as schools. Also, a keen observer will note that avoiding pregnancies does nothing to limit Zika’s spread or its harmful effects. So leaving puerile legislation aside, what actually can be done?
The first thing we must note is that unlike most harmful viruses, Zika cannot readily spread from person to person. It is a mosquito borne virus, meaning that the only way for it to be transfer between people is for a mosquito to bite an infected individual, and then bite someone else. This also means that blood transfusions may also spread the virus. However an infected individual could literally sneeze or cough on a subject without significant risk of spreading the virus. Clinicians managing Ebola, or the Flu could only hope for such conditions as simply touching an infected person would suffice to transfer the virus. So, practically speaking – if we eliminate the mosquitos, then Zika is effectively neutralized. In Virology, this idea is referred to as eliminating the vector, and aside from some very rare therapies or vaccines, it is the best way to contain a harmful disease. It’s also vastly more feasible than stopping all births.
The world has seen similar campaigns before. In South Asia, another mosquito borne disease (Dengue) was greatly reduced by eliminating mosquito breeding grounds, namely stagnant pools of water. In China, localized pesticide spraying for regions known for mosquito activity reduced the spread of yellow fever by upto 50% in certain areas. Though not as direct as a vaccine, or an antibiotic – simple, cheap public health campaigns are an extremely powerful tool to reduce the spread of Zika. Such campaigns are what we should be focusing on until such time as an effective therapy against the virus is developed (not banning babies).
This also means that as Canadians, we are effectively immune from the brunt of virus. Though we may catch it if we visit regions endemic to the virus, the mosquitos needed to spread the virus don’t live near us. This is not to say that we should ignore Zika, but rather that cooler heads and a little prudence is needed.
Lastly, this story highlights major problems in the way that society deals with contagions. The problem is that we obsess on a single pathogen at a time, and devote massive resources simply against that one organism. If the world had been attentive to the known spread of Zika, if more attention and more diligence was employed over the last 2 years, Zika would have remained a largely insignificant event. However, because we turned our attention solely to the headliners, like Ebola, we didn’t address the spread of Zika, and we didn’t properly investigate what this virus could do until it was too late.
It therefore seems that the moral of the sad story of Zika should be one of caution, prudence and sensibility. Panicking and hysteria have no place in medicine.