Zika: The Bad Boy Virus of the Year
Name one of the top 10 most commonly searched healthcare topics on Google last year. Ok, “cupping” and “traumatic brain injury” are both up there. But Zika was too. Gracious! Two years ago it was Ebola. In actual fact, they’ve both been around for some time. Ebola first occurred in humans in 1975 and Zika as far back as 1952. So, they’re out there. The trouble with Harry is that we can’t friggin’ figure out when they’ll burst on the scene and cause an epidemic.
Sure, Ebola is deadly, but Zika is no pussycat of a virus either. Instead of trying to kill you with hemorrhagic fever like Ebola, Zika is a simple flu (fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes), from which you heal up, and then are immune for good. But if you happen to be pregnant and have Zika, all hell breaks loose and the consequences to babies can be devastating. Witness the fact that during the first 3 months of the most recent Zika outbreak in Brazil (the 3rd in the last 10 years across the globe), close to 4000 babies of infected mothers were born with microcephaly (brain defects). Compare this to the usual 150 cases/year in general. Doing the math, that’s over 100 times higher than average! And yes, it’s in America now.
A Family Affair
We’ve seen Zika-like viruses before, as the flavivirus family also includes Dengue, West Nile and Yellow Fever as its main characters. To boot, these guys are all spread through insect bites. And since mosquitoes tend to bite across a variety of animal species, Voila, we end up getting things that other animals have. Great.
Besides the known, serious-as-a-heart-attack pregnancy issues with Zika, there are several other emerging concerns with this bug:
- Zika can be transmitted through blood transfusions/exchanges and sex.
- Zika can be found in semen well after the infection has cleared. Maybe even months after.
- Zika has been shown to literally destroy the testicles of infected male mice. It is not known with what efficiency this occurs, if at all, in humans. We haven’t seen this kind of activity since the mumps virus, which can “drop” to the testicles and wreak similar havoc.
From several points of view then, the Zika virus is among the viral “heavies” that are, like HIV, hepatitis and Ebola, on the Feds most wanted list.
The good news is that working vaccines to other flaviruses exist, which should make the development of a Zika vaccine a tad easier. And then there’s the heavy weight of solving a serious public health problem, which is also good… because, in the words of General George S. Patton Jr.: “Pressure makes diamonds.” So, support science and scientists who could be instrumental in getting the rubber to the road.
For now, the CDC’s advice for us is clear: prevent the spread of Zika by not travelling to endemic areas, apply insect repellent and avoid mosquito bites, and use condoms, especially with pregnant women. And, if you have travelled to a Zika-infected area, you should wear condoms with sex for 6 months. To learn more, visit the CDC website or peruse a recent lecture of mine.