The Zika virus was a hot topic at CityLab 2016 held in Miami, FL, the last week in October. This annual gathering of global mayors and urban leaders was presented by the Aspen Institute, The Atlantic, and Bloomberg Philanthropies. The Brazilian outbreak last winter was the first time most Americans had ever heard of the Zika virus. While the recent election may have pushed Zika off the evening news, the virus is not going away.
Discovered in Africa in 1947, it primarily affected small clusters of people. In 2007 it began popping up in Islands in the Pacific and those people started traveling, triggering a global pandemic. In the age of global travel and trade, pathogens like Zika are the “new normal.”
The mosquitos themselves don’t travel from one continent to another. They fly about 500 feet in a lifetime. But they bite people who then travel.
The virus is in the bloodstream for about a week. When infected carriers arrive in a place without Zika, a local, uninfected mosquito can bite them, become infected, and then go on to bite other people, spreading the virus. That’s what happened in Puerto Rico where, in just over six months, Zika engulfed the island, and infected thousands of pregnant women.
Dr. Tom Frieden, Director of the CDC, told the crowd, “Here’s the plain truth: that Zika and other diseases spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito species are really not controllable with current technologies. So we will see this become endemic.”
Aerial spraying campaigns have had some success in Miami, but transmission has persisted. The Aedes aegypti is a difficult mosquito to kill because it has been living in close proximity to people for centuries, hiding in closets, under beds and in other household areas where pesticide spraying campaigns do not reach. Once the virus has entered the local Aedes mosquito populations, authorities have not been able to get it totally out. The effort is further complicated by the fact that the virus can be spread sexually.
60 Minutes, the well-respected news program on CBS, aired “The Zika Virus” segment on Nov. 6, 2016.
Congress approved $1.1 billion to fight the virus in September, after eight months of political deadlock, Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health, says the delay is a worrisome sign that people just don’t take it seriously. That is until they know an infant and family affected by the disease.
For most people that contract the Zika virus, the symptoms resemble a mild flu. For some adults the virus can cause severe neurological problems. But by far the most devastating affects are birth defects. Microcephaly is caused by the attack on a fetus’s brain, and happens usually in the first trimester. The brain does not grow and in fact, slowly dies. Babies can also suffer other developmental problems such as inability to swallow, seizures, hearing loss and damage to the retina, which can lead to blindness.
Obstetrician Dr. Alberto De la Vega was interviewed by CBS correspondent Jon LaPook who asked him, “Would you recommend that women not get pregnant?” Dr. De la Vega responded, “Until we have a vaccine, or until we have control over this epidemic, you should avoid it. This is not the time to get pregnant in Puerto Rico or any place where the infection is occurring.”
Dr. Fauci’s team is working on the vaccine. They are using the West Nile vaccine as the “DNA platform” for a Zika vaccine. A DNA platform is a circular piece of DNA which has an area in it where one can remove a gene from one disease and replace it with a gene from another disease. They took West Nile out and replaced it with Zika. Initial trials are very promising and Dr. Fauci’s team is hopeful the vaccine will be available within months rather than years.
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The full transcript of the 60 Minutes segment can be read here: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/60-minutes-zika-in-the-united-states-mosquito-disease/