Do you remember the plot of “Children of Men,” where the world simply stopped having babies? Because of the Zika virus, that’s what many countries in South America are asking citizens to do, at least for the next year or two.
Why? The Zika virus. Why haven’t you ever heard of it? From a clinical standpoint, it’s not a very serious infection. It causes aches, fever, rashes and pink eye, but it passes relatively quickly. It’s not a fatal disease and it’s not spread by airborne or skin-to-skin means. It’s spread primarily through mosquitoes, but also through sexual transmission.
So why has the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global health emergency? Because Zika has now been linked to microcephaly, a severe birth defect where children are born with abnormally small heads and brains.
As a result, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have warned pregnant women against traveling to South America, Central America and the Caribbean. Various South American countries have asked couples to put off getting pregnant until 2017 or, in some cases 2018. United and Delta airlines are allowing staff to opt out of flights to countries with confirmed cases of Zika.
Zika was first identified in Uganda in 1947. The first human infection was recorded in 1952, but it wasn’t until 2007 that its first recorded human outbreak occurred in the island nation of Micronesia. Only 20 percent of those infected succumb to its symptom.
Brazil has declared war on the mosquitoes carrying it, mobilizing their entire army to go house to house searching for and exterminating mosquitoes.
The disease can also be sexually transmitted, it has been detected in saliva and there are recorded cases of its transmission via semen, including cases where it has resulted in bloody semen.
The microcephaly connection is still being investigated. The CDC has suggested it does not yet have full enough data to prove the connection. Microcephaly is caused by a number of other causes, including genetic defects, rubella, and cytomegalovirus.
FiveThirtyEight broke it down this way: “Of the 4,180 suspected cases of microcephaly [in Brazil], only 270 have been confirmed (462 have been rejected), and only six of those are confirmed to be related to Zika.” As Lifehacker notes, even those 4,180 cases amount to only 0.1 percent of the country’s births in 2015.
Is this a chicken-and-egg scenario? Is there an increase in micocephaly linked to the disease, or is there simply an increase in detecting and reporting microcephaly due to the disease scare?
There has also been an increase in Guillain-Barre syndrome, in which the immune system attacks the nervous system after infection. This can cause temporary paralysis. The CDC is still trying to figure out if this increase is at all related to Zika.
And yes, it has made it to the United States. Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in four counties where the disease was diagnosed in a total of nine residents. A woman in Dallas, Texas, also contracted Zika via sexual transmission. Mosquitoes capable of carrying the disease range as far north as New Jersey on the East Coast, Illinois in the Midwest, and Northern California on the West Coast (see the maps above). Please note the vast majority of these areas have not had any reports of Zika, however.
Whether they will may depend on how quickly the disease is eradicated south of these areas and how quickly the climate warms as spring and summer approach.
Yet a bigger concern looms: the Summer Olympics take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil this August. The Zika scare isn’t expected to be over by then. Athletes and crowds from around the world will be at risk, and many could bring the unwanted souvenir of Zika back home with them. (This is among a host of other health concerns at the 2016 Summer Olympics.)