Scitech | Hitchhiker’s guide to the Zika virus

We can't fix what we don't know

Viruses are hitchhikers from hell – criminal masterminds that enter your body and take complete control of your cell functions. What the media has been calling the new deadly virus in town, the Zika virus, has actually been around since the 1950s, concentrated in a narrow equatorial belt in Africa and Asia. In 1947, the virus was first isolated near the Zika Forest of Uganda; a cross-species jump of the Zika virus was identified in 1968, when a Nigerian man developed the common symptoms that came to be known as Zika fever. Soon after, numerous reports of Zika virus infections began emerging from all over Africa and Asia. And in 2014, it started its spread toward Central and South America. It was only here that the Zika virus came to the forefront of Western media. This reaction, due to ignorance of the virus’s effects, is too late, as the virus has already ravaged multiple impoverished communities.

Although new reports of Zika mention sexual transmission as a possibility, its rapid spread has been primarily facilitated by mosquitoes of the genus Aedes, common vectors that allow infectious viruses to move from one host to the next. They spread diseases such as Dengue virus, Yellow Fever virus, and West Nile virus. These viruses, along with Zika, are part of the Flaviviridae family of viruses, which generally cause a variety of symptoms, from a mild fever to a potentially deadly encephalitis – acute inflammation in the brain. Only one-fourth of those infected with Zika develop symptoms, with most cases being very mild and short-lived, a rash being the most distinctive symptom.

This recent spike in media attention has also been due to a possible correlation of microcephaly and the Zika virus. Upward of 4,000 babies in Zika-affected communities have been born with microcephaly, and there has been next to no major response until now. Microcephaly is a neurodevelopmental disorder that shrinks the head circumference and size of the brain. This is believed to occur when pregnant people infected with the virus pass the disease to their child, infecting the developing fetus. There are many potential reasons for this abnormality in newborns, as occurrence also spiked following the dropping of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. Despite this, the current spike is believed to be caused by the Zika virus: the World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that the evidence is overwhelming, although it could take at least half a year until this correlation can be proven as a true symptom.

However, it is this symptom that is inciting the most worry in people internationally. Officials of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the U.S. noticed the link when the virus was found in the tissues of newborn babies that suffer from microcephaly. Officials at the CDC are advising those who are pregnant to avoid travel to Zika-infected areas, and those who already live in those areas to avoid pregnancy. However, this is easier said than done. Unplanned pregnancies and the lack of sex education in many of the places most affected by the virus make it very difficult for people to simply delay pregnancy.

The WHO declared Zika an international public health emergency earlier this month. The Zika virus is now at a pandemic level, the highest possible degree of an infection, characterized by extremely rapid spread at international magnitudes. This is the fourth declaration of emergency in the entire history of the WHO. This sense of urgency has multiple causes: the possible correlation with birth defects; large populations of mosquito carriers; the rapid spread of the disease; and the lack of a vaccine. It is estimated that 4 million people will be affected by the end of the year, with over 1.5 million in Brazil. With the summer Olympic games planned to take place in Brazil, the virus is likely to spread even faster. The virus has also spread to over twenty countries in the Americas alone, and there are reports of infections in some U.S. states, such as Florida, Texas, and California. Although such reports are mostly of travellers who picked up the virus abroad, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan warns that “it is now spreading explosively. The level of alarm is extremely high.”

The Zika virus is now at a pandemic level, the highest possible degree of an infection.

This announcement has spurred the race to stop the spread of the Zika virus into high gear. This includes the urgent mobilization of research toward vaccine development and the cooperation of nations to work toward the common goal of prevention and treatment. Companies and scientists are racing to produce a vaccine as concern for the dangers of the virus spreads worldwide. Selena Sagan, associate professor and a researcher of Flaviviruses at Mcgill, told The Daily, “We currently know too little about the molecular biology and pathogenesis of Zika virus, so it is hard to predict how long it will take to develop a vaccine. Up until recently, Zika was only known to cause a mild fever and rash in those infected. We never thought of it as a threat because we didn’t realize the association with the birth defects now observed in South America.”

Sagan continues, “This has sparked greater interest, so quick action is important to try and mitigate risks and to understand the virus more thoroughly. There is currently a shadow of doubt surrounding Zika, and it should be of foremost importance to establish causation and then work on developing a vaccine to prevent infection and the birth defects that are causing panic.”

To deal with the current emergency, the most organized form of prevention happening right now are soldiers going door-to-door to destroy anything infested by mosquitos. This is similar to the mosquito brigades in Panama during the early 1900s, intended to get rid of mosquitoes that carried the Yellow Fever virus. However, this is not enough: the issue stems from the problem of a lack of funding for important basic research on neglected tropical diseases. There is a belief that such diseases are neglected only because they occur in impoverished countries, but, much of the neglect is also due to a lack of sufficient knowledge of the virus and its possible risks – most of these neglected tropical diseases are deemed harmless or mild with negligible fatality rates, and research is pushed to the side in favour of more imminent diseases. So when a neglected virus causes the development of severe symptoms in an infected individual, chances are low that it would be noticed by the international community because too little is known about its transmission and origins.

A recent example is the 2014 outbreak of the Ebola virus. Compared to the symptoms of Zika, Ebola is much deadlier, as it causes hemorrhagic fever in those infected. There were high amounts of criticism directed toward the WHO for not taking immediate action on the issue, and as a result, Ebola spread worldwide, killing over 11,000 people. A similar panic caused by the correlation between Zika and microcephaly has taken over the media and it has become a household name. Vaccine development and preventative measures have been put into place after the WHO declared Zika a public health emergency of international concern. And although the response toward Zika has been much quicker compared to the Ebola crisis, it shouldn’t be necessary to wait until the disease is at our doorsteps to begin basic research in an earnest search for a vaccine.