In the Luganda language, Ziika means “overgrown.” Ironically, the Zika forest in Uganda isn’t all that overgrown — it is only about 62 acres in size. But it has about 40 species of mosquitoes, which has made it a destination for mosquito researchers. In 1947, researchers discovered a virus in a Rhesus monkey in the small forest and named the virus Zika.
Now Zika has become the most talked-about disease in the world and it is spreading fast — most recently to the shores of the U.S. with a possible local outbreak in Miami.
In this post, insight into what Zika is, where it comes from, what the risk is, and how we’re responding — from avoidance to abortion, to a global network of app users donating their phones and computers for research. Plus, what would happen if there were no more mosquitoes?
News and insights from: The Washington Post, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Telegraph, CNBC, The New England Journal of Medicine and Mashable.
Read widely. Read wisely.
Bienvenidos a Miami: Zika Comes to America
This week the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asked blood centers in south Florida to “cease collecting blood immediately.” They are investigating 4 possible cases of Zika being transmitted by local mosquitoes.
While U.S. citizens have been infected with Zika while traveling in other countries, until now there have been no cases of Zika being spread within the continental U.S. by local mosquitoes. This could be a big deal.
“FDA Temorarily Halts Blood Donation in Two Florida Counties Over Zika Fears”
by Lena Sun in The Washington Post (3 minute read)
So What Is Zika, Again?
What it is: “The Zika virus is a mosquito-transmitted infection related to dengue, yellow fever and West Nile virus…About four in five victims have no symptoms, and those who do usually recover within a week. Common symptoms include a fever rarely higher than 102 degrees, an itchy pink rash, bloodshot eyes, sensitivity to light, headaches and joint pains.”
What it does: “The Zika virus has been linked to unusually small heads and brain damage in newborns — called microcephaly — in children born to infected mothers, as well as blindness, deafness, seizures and other congenital defects. In adults, the virus is linked to a form of temporary paralysis, called Guillain-Barré syndrome.”
How it is transmitted:
This is a great primer on Zika if you don’t know much about it.
“Short Answers to Hard Questions About Zika Virus”
by Donald G. McNeil Jr, Catherine Saint Louis and Nicholas St. Fleur in The New York Times (16 minute read)
The Plight of Puerto Rico
Although the FDA now fears Zika spreading locally in Florida, by far the most at-risk U.S. citizens are in Puerto Rico. “Of the 1,301 mosquito-borne cases recorded in the U.S., 97 percent of them are in Puerto Rico, neither a state nor a sovereign nation, but whose people are, nonetheless, U.S. citizens.” — Rolling Stone
And things are just getting worse. Just this week, the Centers for Disease Control predicted that 1/4 of Puerto Ricans could be infected by the end of this year. — The Wall Street Journal
If it seems like Zika came out of nowhere, that’s pretty much accurate. The Rolling Stone piece reports this history of the disease:
“Zika was first discovered in 1947 in the Zika Forest of Uganda, where researchers were studying the impact of mosquito-borne viruses on rhesus monkeys. Over the next 60 years, there were only 14 documented cases of Zika in humans, mainly in Africa and parts of southern Asia. Then, in 2007, a Zika outbreak began on the tiny South Pacific island of Yap, where some 900 people were infected, though most had few or no symptoms. The next Zika outbreak occurred six years later, in 2013, when 31,000 people sought treatment for the virus in French Polynesia and its nearby islands. By 2014, Zika had spread to Brazil, where maternity wards in the summer of 2015 began to notice a strange new phenomenon: at first one or two, and then dozens of babies, born with small, almost pointed heads.
“Although Brazil remains the hardest-hit, with perhaps 1.5 million Brazilians infected and more than 1,500 babies born with Zika-related microcephaly, Zika has since circled the globe, spreading across Latin America and the Caribbean, where there is active transmission of the virus in 41 countries and territories.”
And while Zika itself is bad, it may just represent one case of a broader, threatening trend.
“Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine last winter, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Disease at the National Institutes of Health, noted that Zika was just the latest mosquito-borne virus to reach the Western Hemisphere in the past 20 years, following the path of dengue fever, West Nile virus and chikungunya. This, he suggested, “forces us to confront a potential new disease-emergence phenomenon: pandemic expansion of multiple, heretofore relatively unimportant [mosquito-borne viruses] previously restricted to remote ecologic niches.”
This is long, but if you are interested, it’s the best piece of the week.
“Zika: The Epidemic at America’s Door”
by Janet Reitman in Rolling Stone (31 minute read)
Congress Takes Action!
In the face of this looming epidemic, with the potential to affect millions of people, leaders in Congress took bold action and have quickly developed private sector partnerships to radically speed up research into vaccination and treatment for Zika.
In reality, Congress adjourned for seven weeks without funding any emergency preparations for the Zika virus. “There is no vaccine or quick diagnostic test for Zika” today. And without federal funding, research on potential vaccines and treatment will halt by the end of the summer.
“Congress’s failure to fund Zika bill fuels fears virus will continue to spread”
by Jessica Glenza in The Guardian (4 minute read)
So why didn’t Congress act? The parties couldn’t agree on common ground and let hot-button issues impede a potential agreement. Republicans put forth a funding bill, but “Democrats charged that Republicans had booby-trapped the legislation by adding provisions that would restrict the role of Planned Parenthood,” among other things.
Read more in “Bill is Blocked by Senate Democrats Upset Over Provisions” by David Herszenhorn in The New York Times. (8 minute read)
Three Responses to Zika: Avoidance, Abortion, and Assistance
Response #1: Athletes avoiding the risks in Rio
One way to respond to a harmful disease that has no vaccination and no treatment is just to avoid it entirely, as some Olympic athletes are doing. This week Bob and Mike Bryan, the 2012 Olympic Gold medalists in men’s doubles tennis announced that they will not defend their medal in Rio due to fears of Zika. — The Los Angeles Times
The Bryans join a growing list of world-class athletes who are opting out of the games in an effort to avoid Zika contagion. The list includes golfers like Jason Day and Rory McIlroy -The Telegraph
All this despite recent assurance from a Yale study that the actual risks of getting Zika at the Olympics is quite low. “The paper estimates that out of the many thousands of international travelers from all countries who go to the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio next month and in September, only between six people — on the low end — and 80 people — on the high end — are likely to become infected by Zika.”
Response #2: Abortion rates increasing in Latin America
Zika produces heart-breaking effects on newborns whose mother’s are infected — including brain damage and microcephaly. In reaction to this, the number of abortion requests in areas where Zika is prevalent is skyrocketing.
The New England Journal of Medicine recently reported that in all countries with local Zika transmission (except Jamaica), “there were statistically significant increases of 36 to 108% over baseline in requests for abortion” after the Pan American Health Organization issued an warning regarding Zika virus in Latin America.
Response #3: App offers way to assist in discovering Zika Treatment
A new project called OpenZika “crowdsources the spare computing power of thousands of devices to help scientists look for possible treatments to combat Zika.” For you nerds out there, OpenZika will remind you of SETI project (the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) which enabled users to donate their unused computing time to search for alien life around the universe.
It’s a creative response in the midst of a lack of government research funding.
“OpenZika launched in May, and since then, more than 50,000 volunteers worldwide have donated the equivalent of roughly 4,000 years’ worth of computing time from their PCs, Macs and Android devices.”
I love this idea. I’m also concerned about the privacy and security of my device. If those concerns could be overcome I think many of us would donate our unused computer cycles this way.
“How Your Smartphone Can Help Find a Cure for Zika”
by Maria Gallucci in Mashable (7 minute read)
postscript: A world without mosquitoes
We need a quick an inexpensive way to screen for Zika. More important, we need a good treatment for those who are infected. More important than that, we could use a vaccine to prevent the effects of infection in the first place.
Even more radical, maybe we could jut get rid of mosquitoes.
Who needs them? Even the “safe” mosquitoes are an annoyance, disturbing our summers with itching arms and legs. The worst ones spread Zika, Malaria, West Nile, Dengue Fever and an growing assortment of tropical diseases. Who needs them?
We know that ecosystems are delicate and the disappearaace of a species of life could have major second and third order consequences because the species performs some important function we take for granted. But according to an article in the journal Nature, it might be worth the risk to eliminate mosquitoes altogether.
“…in many cases, scientists acknowledge that the ecological scar left by a missing mosquito would heal quickly as the niche was filled by other organisms. Life would continue as before — or even better…
“…Given the huge humanitarian and economic consequences of mosquito-spread disease, few scientists would suggest that the costs of an increased human population would outweigh the benefits of a healthier one. And the ‘collateral damage’ felt elsewhere in ecosystems doesn’t buy much sympathy either. The romantic notion of every creature having a vital place in nature may not be enough to plead the mosquito’s case. It is the limitations of mosquito-killing methods, not the limitations of intent, that make a world without mosquitoes unlikely.”
“Ecology: A World Without Mosquitoes”
by Janet Fang in Nature
Max — July 31, 2016