The Zika virus continues to be a problem that must be addressed.
The mosquito-borne virus is now known to be transferable from human to human through sexual contact, even up to six months (it may be more) after developing symptoms.
It’s still unknown whether men with Zika who never develop symptoms have the ability to pass Zika through sex. This makes the malady much harder to track, and tremendously more dangerous.
Concern is growing among authorities as controlling the mosquitos is essentially an impossible task.
While not in the same category of virulence as Ebola, the effects of Zika can be every bit as tragic.
While Ebola can wipe out populations and become the sort of pandemic one sees in the movies—Zika is much different. Its symptoms are mild for healthy adults, and can often be weathered with little issue. Some with Zika have such low grade symptoms that they never realize they are experiencing a problem.
Touching body fluids, or coughing cannot spread Zika, which is “good.”
But the tragedy occurs when an adult is infected—by either a mosquito bite, or by having sexual relations with someone carrying the virus—and the newly infected patient is pregnant, or becomes pregnant. The chances of the unborn child having problems are unacceptably high.
In Brazil, between October 2015 and January 2016, 4,180 cases of microcephaly were reported, up from an annual average of 150 cases in the years prior to the Zika outbreak. Microcephaly leaves children of infected mothers with brains that never fully develop in their too small skulls. They often die, or are left profoundly handicapped.
There is not yet any vaccine—although Zika vaccine efficacy trials could start as early as 2017. The only true protection is to avoid infected mosquitos and to ensure one does not have unprotected sex for at least six months after any potential exposure by one’s partner.
The Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization are working to find better ways to protect the populations who might be affected.
Some world leaders have been complacent because Zika is not Ebola— they mistakenly think outbreaks will only happen in poor communities without good water sanitation or because, as both the CDC and the WHO admit, there are still many unknowns.
This is foolish. Mosquitos can breed in a rich man’s beautiful fountain as easily as they can in a barrio mud puddle.
Additionally, mosquitos are not terribly respectful of national boundaries. They go where their wings carry them. Given the toll Zika could take on newborn infants, leaders need to reevaluate the level of response and choose safety over complacency. The social-psychological effect of a disease that preys most visibly on newborns should not be underestimated.
Methods to control the insect carriers, to protect against their bites in affected areas, to develop protective vaccines and post-exposure therapies must be pursued.
This is not just a challenge for the Brazil Olympics, although that is the most visible touch point this summer. The developed world has an opportunity to short circuit this problem before it spreads further. It should avail itself to this opportunity.
The Obama administration should not play political games with funding in order to fund other pet projects, or to score points against congressional opponents. It should use available funds to provide for this situation and work together with Congress to provide what is needed to protect America’s unborn.