Lately, there’s been a whirlwind of news articles covering what’s known as the “Zika virus”. One headline from The Washington Post reads “WHO: Zika virus ‘spreading explosively,’ ‘level of alarm extremely high“. Another from BBC News reads “Zika virus could become ‘explosive pandemic’“.
Kind of makes you wonder, is humanity about to live out the script of Outbreak? Are we all truly doomed as these headlines suggest?
Nah, not really.
To help you understand why, let’s go over the basics
1) What is the Zika Virus exactly?
The Zika virus is a mosquito-borne virus that is genetically related to the West Nile, dengue fever, and yellow fever viruses. The first report of the virus appears in the 1950’s, when researchers originally isolated the virus from a caged monkey in the Zika Forest in Uganda — hence the name “Zika virus”.
2) Why is it such a big problem now?
There is currently an outbreak of the Zika virus in Brazil that has rapidly spread across all of South and Central America. The Brazilian ministry of health estimates that somewhere between 444,000 to 1.3 million infections may have occurred in 2015 alone.
2) How deadly is this virus?
Not very. In fact, only one in five people actually develop symptoms when infected with this virus. Those symptoms usually include a mild headache, fever, and general malaise. Some people might develop a pink eye or a rash. However, no one has ever died from this disease since its discovery in 1954. That being said, this virus might still be dangerous.
The main reason this disease is making headlines is that it has been linked with birth defects in babies who were born to women infected during pregnancy. Specifically, babies are being born with abnormally small heads, a condition known as “microcephaly”.
However, linked is not the right word in this situation. The official statement from the World Health Organization (WHO) is this:
“While a significant increase in the number of newborns with an …[abnormally small head]… seems established in the northeastern states of Brazil, the magnitude of the increase cannot be precisely estimated. Similarly, a link with Zika virus infection cannot be confirmed until the ongoing investigations are completed.”
So really, there is no scientifically established link between the Zika virus and birth defects to date. The only connection between the two is that Brazil has seen a sharp increase in both conditions this year (which is a correlation, not a causation). In fact, there could be no real relationship between birth defects and infection with the Zika virus at all. In fact, the Brazilian health ministry said of the more than 700 microcephaly cases reported in infants, only 6 of the infants showed signs of a Zika virus infection. Although this would suggest that there is no link between the Zika virus and microcephaly, that data could also be misleading. For example, the outdated testing methods used might not always pick up on signs of a Zika infection. Furthermore, we don’t know yet if the microcephaly is due to the mother being infected or the infant being infected (assuming that the Zika virus and microcephaly are even related at all).
3) So is there going to be a worldwide pandemic?
Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that this virus will likely spread to many countries around the world. Unfortunately, the species of mosquito that carries it is A. aegypti, found all across the globe due to trade and travel. At the same time, there won’t be a worldwide pandemic in the sense that the Zika virus isn’t going to infect every single person and their mother. As the CDC explains, any outbreak in the US (or other country with similar socioeconomic status) would likely be localized to a small area, given that Americans have good access to window screens, air conditioners, and mosquito repellents. So far, there are 31 reported cases of the virus in the US, all of which occur in citizens who recently traveled to South/Central America.
4) Is there a vaccine?
Nope, there is currently no vaccine available for the virus. However, researchers are now pursuing this (and might even be on to something already). Like always though, it could be a decade before there’s a vaccine or we might find one as soon as next year. That’s because scientific research is a mix of both luck and skill.
The bottom line:
The bottom line is that we shouldn’t be terrified by this virus, especially those of us living in highly developed countries, and given the circumstantial “evidence” linking the Zika virus to microcephaly. Still, the possibility that these two conditions could be directly related means that pregnant women, especially those living in developing countries like Brazil, should be cautious.