By Gwen Schanker, editorial columnist
If you’ve been following science news at all the last two weeks, you’ve seen a slew of articles on the Zika virus, an epidemic that’s rapidly spreading across South and Central America. Zika virus is caused by infection from mosquito bites, and until last year, occurrences were fairly rare. The most recent outbreak of the virus – which was first documented in 1947 – happened in Brazil in early 2015. Until recently, scientists believed it to be fairly harmless, with more than 80 percent of those infected experiencing little to no symptoms. However, recent research has brought to light the possibility of a link between Zika virus and serious birth defects, including microcephaly (being born with an abnormally small head and brain), according to the Mayo Clinic.
This discovery, combined with the rapid spread of the virus to more than 15 countries, has created a state of alarm, which last week culminated in a public service announcement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asking pregnant women and women likely to get pregnant to avoid visiting affected countries. Health officials in El Salvador urged women to avoid getting pregnant until 2018. Earlier this week, the World Health Organization declared the virus to be a public health emergency, which is likely to prompt international action from donors, lawmakers and researchers.
The Zika epidemic parallels the 2014 West Africa Ebola outbreak in that it’s a public health emergency whose rapid expansion has meant health organizations are not yet equipped to handle it. However, unlike Ebola, the extent of the danger associated with the Zika virus is only beginning to emerge. Not to mention, there are still plenty of unknowns: The first case of sexual transmission of the virus was reported in Texas on Wednesday, and though all evidence points to a link between Zika and microcephaly, the cause of this connection has yet to be determined. This makes deciding how best to combat the issue even more difficult. Finally, while there was minimal risk that the Ebola virus would become widespread in North America, the Zika virus is much more likely to reach the US. A recent announcement from the Pan American Health Organization declared that up to four million people in the Americas could be exposed to the virus in the next 12 months.
Officials are exploring several potential approaches to the Zika epidemic. The simplest is doling out preventative advice, like travel and pregnancy warnings. Many sources are also providing advice on how best to avoid and treat mosquito bites. The next steps are active preventative measures like fumigation. Following that is the imperative development of a vaccine, which is underway but likely to take several years. Another option is attempting to cause a decline in the infected mosquito population, with genetic engineering as a controversial – but likely viable – route to that goal.
Although a variety of solutions are being pursued, the fact remains that being caught off guard is one of the worst things that can happen in this situation. The way we combat the current Zika epidemic should serve as a template for how to avoid similar outbreaks in the future. For that reason, it’s imperative to understand as much as possible about what causes this disease and what the implications are, to streamline rapid vaccine development and to explore any and all options for treating this and other similar diseases. Simply telling women not to get pregnant is neither a long-term nor a realistic solution, but understanding the genetic undertones and links to other diseases might lead to one. As this outbreak continues to progress, developing tools that can be applied to the next emergency should be at the top of every scientist’s list of priorities.