Zika virus causes global alarm

The sudden rise of the Zika virus across South America is stoking up fear and alarm amongst many that it may continue to spread at an uncontainable rate. In fact, on Feb 1, The World Health Organization declared the Zika Virus a global public health emergency. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recently updated its website in order to inform the public on the Zika virus.

“[The virus] is spread to people through mosquito bites. The most common symptoms of Zika virus disease are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting from several days to a week. Severe disease requiring hospitalization is uncommon”.

The CDC also notes the correlation between the virus and Guillain-Barré syndrome, which Webmd describes as “a problem with your nervous system. It causes muscle weakness, loss of reflexes, and numbness or tingling in your arms, legs, face, and other parts of your body. This rare condition can cause paralysis and lead to death”.

Beyond the ailments endured by the infected, there is also believed to be a link between the virus and numerous pregnancy complications. In Brazil, where the virus is most prominent, women with the virus have been giving birth to children with Microcephaly. The Washington Post describes Microcephaly as “a rare neurological condition in which children have unusually small heads” and may coincide with “Down’s syndrome and other chromosomal disorders”. Microcephaly may be caused by numerous other issues and environmental factors during pregnancy, but there is strong reason for the purported link between the virus and the condition as this article notes: “Brazilian doctors have reported 4,000 suspected cases of Microcephaly versus 147 in 2014. The clusters of cases appear to coincide with the regions where Zika virus is most active”.

The disease is spread for the most part by the Aedes mosquito and many South American governments are already taking active or precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the virus. An article in The Daily Mail takes note of Brazil’s novel approach of containing the virus by releasing genetically modified male mosquitos which serve to destroy mosquito populations. These male mosquitos mate with females but due to genetic manipulation their offspring die in their larval stage. According to this article, in 2014 Panama had conducted such a project “out in a town west of Panama’s capital, [which] resulted in a 93 per cent decline in the mosquito population in the area” but the project cost was quite “high”. Though some are optimistic about such measures, others are concerned that controlling mosquito population alone may not be enough.

One reason many are concerned is that though mosquitos are known to be the primary cause of the Zika virus spread, there may be many other avenues of proliferation as well. An article in The Wall Street Journal claims that “Brazilian health researchers said Friday the Zika virus is active in saliva and urine, sparking fears about possible new infection routes”. There is also reason to believe the virus can be sexually transmitted. An article by CBC notes that, “the first known case of Zika virus transmission in the continental United States was reported in Dallas on Tuesday by local health officials, who said it likely was contracted through sex and not a mosquito bite”. The article goes on to note that “Dallas County health officials said in a tweet on Tuesday that the patient did not travel but was infected after having sexual contact with an ill person who had returned from Venezuela”.

This is all quite worrisome as there is a multitude of ways the virus may be transmitted and thus may continue to spread beyond areas plagued by the primary culprit, the Aedes mosquito. Dr. Mark Loeb,a physician and professor in the department of pathology and molecular medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, told the CBC that “eighty per cent of people who are infected aren’t aware so the question is: might men have this in their semen and not even be aware they’re transmitting it?” The fact that the virus can lay dormant and not display any dramatic symptoms is perhaps what will make containing or stopping the spread of the virus most difficult.

Brazilian child born with microcelphaly / CTV

Brazilian child born with microcelphaly / CTV

The number of cases beyond South and Central America is likely to rise, at least marginally, as the virus does seem to be spreading – Omaha, Nebraska’s local news KETV network claimed this past Friday that two women have just been diagnosed in Nebraska and that “the patients contracted the virus through mosquito bites during their travels. One woman had been in the Caribbean; the other was in South America”. Florida has had a total of nine confirmed cases of the virus and the state has quickly responded. According to ABC News “Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency today in the four counties where people have been diagnosed with the Zika virus.” If the spread continues at an alarming rate, there is a chance more counties will be declared as in “a state of emergency” and perhaps in other states as well. In fact, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, there have already been “travel related cases of Zika virus reported in Canada”.

However many professionals are advising that the fears of the Zika virus are overblown and that the media is irresponsibly stoking public anxiety. CNN national security analyst and Professor at Harvard’s School of Government, Juliette Kayyem, believes that there “is no need to panic” over the Zika virus. Kayyem admits that the virus will spread to some degree.

“The reality is that our world is too interconnected, travel is too easy, and mosquitos too airborne to think that we can keep this completely at bay.” Much like when the bird flu or Ebola started to pick up steam in terms of media coverage, people are beginning to get anxious – some may even be dramatically overreacting. Though the virus may be spreading, this doesn’t mean the terrifying symptoms always manifest themselves. Kayyem says, “it’s worth remembering that Zika has been around a long time, the vast majority of those infected suffer mild to no symptoms, and its detrimental consequences appear (though the science is not conclusive) to mostly impact a small subset of the population, mainly pregnant women”.

As the number of cases begin to increase there is likely to come an increasing number of calls for quarantine or shutting down flights or travel between certain nations or possibly even borders. Yet, no such draconian measures were undertaken during either the bird flu or ebola pandemic and no apocalyptic disaster occurred in either case. Also, the Zika virus is comparatively controllable – Kayyem notes that “unlike Ebola, the Zika virus is not transmitted through passive contact” – meaning there must be direct fluid-based contact for the spread of the virus to occur.

It is undeniably hard to gauge the actual severity of the problem when the media is hyper-focused on the terrifying side-effects of the virus and its spread without providing sobering background information, such as the fact that the symptoms are not prevalent in all of those infected and the virus is much more manageable than other recent public health scares.

Robert Smith
Assistant External News Editor

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