by Shaheen Harandi, PL-1
Many countries in the world are currently feeling the impacts – and the fear – of Zika virus. Almost unheard of before the outbreak in Brazil last year, the virus is now being spread by mosquitoes and sexual activity across several countries. In Brazil, the situation was severe with more than 100,000 cases identified and the infection is spreading across the Americas, including Puerto Rico, Trinidad & Tobago.
Several infections have also occurred in the U.S. with nearly 2,000 cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Almost all of the cases were due to travel or sexual contact with individuals from countries with outbreaks. But now, some cases in Florida are home grown. At least six cases were acquired from local mosquitoes, including an infection in a man from Texas during a trip to Miami.
Why is this virus so important? The greatest concern regarding Zika is its link to birth defects. Most infected adults show no symptoms at all. For those who do get symptoms, they tend to be mild. Symptoms can include fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes. These symptoms may look similar to those from other infections, such as dengue. Once individuals recover from Zika, they develop long-lasting immunity.
However, when a pregnant woman becomes infected with Zika virus, there is a chance that her baby will be born with an underdeveloped brain and a small head, called microcephaly. This is a condition that cannot be cured. Microcephaly has been associated with lifelong intellectual disabilities.
The proportion of infected pregnant women who will have babies with microcephaly is not known. This is being studied. It is also not known if other health conditions may develop in the affected babies.
The current Zika virus outbreak makes me think back to the recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa. There are many similarities between the two outbreaks. Both pose major challenges, the viruses spread quickly to several countries, including the U.S. and caused fear among the public. The Ebola virus was spread by contact with blood, as well as body fluids such as through sexual contact with infected individuals. Some symptoms of Ebola even overlap with those of Zika in adults, including fever, body pains, headache and nausea. However, Ebola may progress to severe bleeding, vomiting, diarrhea and death. Death is not common is healthy adults who get Zika infections. However, the devastating impact on infected babies is equally disturbing.
I spent 2 months in the West African country of Ghana this past spring and heard firsthand from Ghanaians about the panic that settled across their country. Many people stayed home and streets were uncharacteristically empty out of fear of Ebola. Clearly the public was very concerned about spread of this disease. Luckily, it never reached Ghana.
Ebola was met with similar concern in the U.S. Thankfully, our country possessed the necessary resources and expertise to ensure that people with the infection were treated early and sufficient precautions were taken to prevent spread. These resources were not available in Africa, especially early in the epidemic. If similar resources were available to West Africans it’s likely that many lives would have been saved and the infection more readily contained. Perhaps the same is true regarding Zika and its potential impact on babies. The U.S. Congress is currently considering the amount of funding to budget to combat Zika.
With appropriate government funding, the U.S. is able to do quite a bit to limit the impact of infectious diseases, such as Ebola and Zika. Funding permits the CDC to collect data and educate the public, utilization of pesticides and other methods to suppress mosquito growth, and to support healthcare providers to conduct testing and provide treatment in a timely manner. Underdeveloped countries, such as those in West Africa, generally lack the infrastructure and resources to accomplish these tasks, especially on a large scale.
Understanding the impact of rapidly spreading diseases like Zika and Ebola on the lives of so many around the world, it’s apparent that it’s time for investment in global health care. We are heading into a time when emerging technology in conjunction with medical and public health expertise should permit improvements in global health infrastructure in a sustainable and practical manner.
The threats to public health we have faced with Ebola, and now Zika virus, are enough to make global health a priority for funding by the U.S. and countries worldwide. Investments now will certainly lessen the Impacts of these diseases and others like them in the future.
With coining the phrase, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” perhaps Benjamin Franklin was our nation’s first public health officer.