The Zika virus has received a lot of media attention lately and with good reason. Unfortunately, the American media has a long history of having some overblown health scares and under representing others. You probably remember the panic that surrounded the swine flu, SARS, and Ebola, and how incredibly insignificant these diseases actually were to the vast majority of people in the United States. So is the Zika virus another overhyped non-issue or is it actually a potential health threat to the people of the US?
There are a few basic criteria that should be used to determine the threat of a disease in a population. First, what does this disease cause? A disease that has a higher rate of maiming and death (AIDS, smallpox, etc.) is obviously more of a concern than one that just causes slight discomfort for a short period of time like the common cold. Second, how easily does it spread? The mode of transmission for disease causing agents like viruses and bacteria is very important to the speed of an outbreak. Diseases that are spread through inhalation tend to spread faster through a population than diseases that are spread through sexual contact or direct bodily fluid contact. This is why Ebola and HIV are thankfully much slower to spread than the common cold. Third, what are the preventative measures and treatments available for this disease? Some diseases have vaccinations, others have highly effective treatments that are immediately available, and others have some combination of the two. However, there are some diseases that the American public has little to no preparation for, and thus no treatments that are ready to go in the event of an unexpected outbreak.
So let’s ask these questions of the Zika virus and see how it stacks up.
What does the Zika virus cause? Well, in healthy adults, almost nothing. There are flu like symptoms that persist for a few days and not much else. However, the highest risk of the Zika virus causing serious damage is in unborn children. Pregnant women who have been infected with the Zika virus have been shown to have children who suffer from microencephaly, which is a birth defect where the skull and brain are undersized and underdeveloped. This is currently just a high correlation, but the World Health Organization says that the ongoing studies should provide a link between the virus and this condition very shortly. It should also be noted that the nerve disorder Guillain-Barre has also been heavily associated with the Zika virus.
How does the Zika virus spread? It is most well known to have been spread by mosquitoes. Mosquitoes contribute to millions of deaths worldwide through other diseases like malaria, but such cases are generally rare in the United States. Zika has also shown to be possible to spread through sexual contact but hasn’t been clearly demonstrated to be contagious through other means. This is not a disease that is going to spread like wildfire in the middle of winter in the colder areas of the US, but during the spring and summer, this could become a very serious issue in a short period of time. This is especially true for the southern parts of the US if enough infected mosquitoes are reproducing.
What preventative measures and treatments are available for the Zika virus? Unfortunately, a vaccine for the Zika virus is currently years away from being available on the market. Bug spray will help but will not be 100% effective. There is also no immediate treatment. The flu-like symptoms dissipate within a week or so for most people, but unborn babies aren’t most people. Vaccines trials are expected to take about 18 months, so it will be at least a year before mass prevention measures are immediately available.
As usual, conspiracy theories have run amuck concerning the virus, ranging from population control to chemtrails to vaccine side effects to Monsanto. This is not really unusual but it doesn’t make it less disappointing. It’s important to remember that this disease is not new, and much like many diseases not endemic to the United States, it has existed for a very long time without us hearing about it because it doesn’t affect us all that often. Really, the existence of this virus means a couple of things to the US and its population. First, women who are pregnant or are trying to become pregnant should be aware of the risks and take some measure to avoid contact with mosquitoes in the event that infected mosquitoes start appearing in the US. Second, people traveling to and from areas affected by outbreaks should be screened for the virus. But other than that, there is no evidence that would suggest that the Zika virus would be a reason to panic in the US.