News of the Zika virus epidemic is popping up left, right, and center, and for good reason. Since this pathogen first reared its ugly head in Brazil last year, infections have been reported in 21 countries across the Americas and the Caribbean, and it’s not anticipated to stop there. Scientists have now warned that this virus has “explosive pandemic potential,” and are calling upon the World Health Organization (WHO) to step up its game and take the lead.
Writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers say we need to learn from the tough lesson that has been the latest and worst-ever Ebola outbreak, which killed more than 11,000 people. They criticize the WHO for their indecisiveness and delayed action, a failure they say could arguably be held accountable for the loss of thousands of lives.
Although not an infectious disease like Ebola, Zika virus is spread by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, the same that can transmit dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever. Now found across the globe in tropical and subtropical areas, including the U.S., Zika has the potential to spread far and wide, and is predicted to infect up to 4 million people in the Americas this year. Although the paper pointed out that an emergency committee meeting had yet to be organized by the WHO, the BBC has now reported that an emergency team has been assembled to discuss the situation on Monday.
But countries have already taken it upon themselves to issue their own guidance, even going so far as advising that women delay pregnancy in the face of alarmingly increasing numbers of associated birth defects. Even if the link between Zika and the rise in microcephaly, or babies born with abnormally small heads, is confirmed, this isn’t a long-term fix in the absence of a vaccine or specific treatment, which can take up to ten years to develop and license.
Pregnant women are advised against travel to affected areas. Skylines/Shutterstock
Although a group at the University of Texas Medical Branch is already working towards an immunization, this was previously not a priority for institutions or health organizations because the virus wasn’t seen as a threat before now. Infection is actually mostly symptomless, with only one in five going on to develop Zika virus disease, characterized by mild signs like fever and joint pains.
Now that around 4,000 babies in Brazil have been born with shrunken heads since investigations began in October of last year – a 2,500 percent increase on 2014’s figure – there is certainly some urgency, but countries don’t have to sit around idly in the meantime. As the paper points out, efforts need to be made to control the mosquitoes, such as using insecticides and removing pools of water that the insects lay eggs in. Advice on how to avoid becoming bitten should also be made available, for instance keeping covered up and using repellant, and surveillance should be bumped up.
While international travel from countries affected by Zika has the potential to see the virus spread out of the Americas and the Caribbean, it’s important to note that just because infections appear in a country, this does not mean epidemics will become established in those places. It can’t be transmitted from person to person and requires the presence of the Ae. aegypti mosquito. Countries that do have these insects can make efforts to reduce the likelihood of outbreaks by quickly identifying cases and preventing them from becoming bitten by resident mosquitoes, which could disseminate the virus.