Science and Journalism in Society

Brandeis University JOUR 130B

Should you be concerned about the Zika Virus?

The Zika virus (ZIKV) will manifest first as a mild headache, then a rash covering prominent areas of the body.  Usually followed by mild fever and back pain the next day, you will actually start to feel better by the end of the second day of illness.  The fever will subside and the rash will eventually go away within a couple of weeks.  There are no deaths associated with the illness.  Other than the discomfort of being ill for a couple of days, why is this a public health concern in Africa, Asia, and now Latin America?  To uncover the truth, we will have to go below the surface.

Similar to yellow fever, dengue fever, and West Nile, ZIKV is primarily transmitted as a mosquito-borne illness (via Aedes aegypti mosquitoes). Originating in the Zika Forest of Uganda, there have been cases in other African countries, such as, Tanzania, Egypt, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, and regions of Asia, including India, Thailand, and the Philippines. It wasn’t until 2007, nearly 60-years after its discovery, that the virus was detected outside of Africa and Asia.  So how did this become a large concern in Latin America?  As most mosquito- transmitted illnesses, the answer likely lies through tourism, especially in Brazil because of the FIFA world soccer cup in 2014.

It was reported that an animal study using in mice have shown the virus is a neurotoxic. Neuronal cells were degraded and general softening of the brain was observed in these young mice.  But this conclusion was not cited and I could not identify any such research publication.  In contrary to this observation, Dr. Brain D. Foy of Colorado State University (an expert in insect-borne illnesses) states that mice, rates and other common research model organisms cannot be infected with the ZIKV, making it difficult to study the virus in traditional animal studies. So what is the evidence of the effects of Zika Virus on brain development? Two pregnant woman in Brazil were found with ZIKV in the amniotic fluid and those fetuses were born with microcephaly (a smaller head circumference). In association with the rise of ZIKV, there was also in increase in the amount of microcephaly births in the Northeast regions of Brazil. There have been more than 150 microcephaly cases in this region last year, which happens to be Brazil’s poorest region.  Because of this two isolated cases and a correlation, couples who want to start families are being told to delay their pregnancies in other countries.  Colombia, the second in highest infection rates, is recommending women delay their pregnancies for six to eight months.  However, El Salvador is advising women to delay for two years.  Despite El Salvador’s more than 5,000 cases of the Zika virus, there has not been any reports of microcephaly.

The Zika Virus, along with any other mosquito-transmitted illness, should not be taken lightly.  But the scientific evidence directly linking the virus outbreak with birth defects is simply lacking.  The only rational fear that I can see in this situation is fear for the unknown.

1 Comment

  1. This is good. Not enough journalists are pointing out this tenuous link. But the WHO is now pretty convinced there is a strong correlation, at least in their language. So it would be great to have your statements backed up with expert quotes. Who else is voicing these words of caution? If you can’t get them directly on phone, you can email. If all else fails, you could include their tweets or references to pieces they’ve written. Nice blogpost on very important topic.

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