Is Zika Just the Boogeyman?

by Erin Gunderson

March 21, 2016

Cover Photo Credits

Zika is a mosquito-borne virus related to West Nile and Dengue that has experienced a recent surge in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean.  There is a correlation between pregnant women who become infected with Zika and a condition called microcephaly that is associated with serious birth defects.  The spread of the virus and the grave implications for children born to infected mothers have caused public and governmental alarm.  However, the majority of countries facing public health crises at the hands of Zika are considered by the World Bank to be developing nations, with limited resources and infrastructure.  Such nations include Brazil and Honduras.  Does the U.S.’s status as a wealthy developed country with advanced public health policy networks make the Zika virus a low level threat?

Reasons to not be worried about Zika

One reason to delay alarm of contracting Zika is the U.S.’s army of bureaucratic agencies dedicated to public health issues.  These include the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the National Institutes of Health.  The Centers for Disease Control have been able to develop a test that can identify Zika within the first week of infection.  In addition, they also provide plans and guidance to hospitals and the public for minimizing risk of contracting and spreading the virus.  The Department of Health and Human Services is currently researching tests, treatments, and vaccines for many different health threats, including Zika.  Finally, the NIH has spent millions on research into flaviviruses, which is the disease family Zika belongs to.

There are other reasons for those in the United States to hold off alarm.  These include the high frequency of things like air conditioning and screens on windows in U.S. communities.  A fairly simple solution, screens and air conditioning can help prevent contact with mosquitoes.  Though common in U.S. households, they are less common in Central and South American countries, and this absence may contribute to the recent spread of mosquito-borne Zika in these geographic areas.

Additionally, there is precedent for Congress taking action against disease.  In the past the House and Senate allocated funds for research and prevention of Ebola and H1N1 (swine flu).  Both of those emergencies were successfully managed.

Reasons to be cautious about Zika

Despite the U.S.’s developed infrastructure and health policy networks, the lack of information about Zika is what makes it a formidable threat.  Zika is a virus new to the Western hemisphere, and while we have developed tests to ascertain whether or not someone has Zika, a vaccine is still a ways off.  Though researchers are scrambling to get a better understanding of the virus and how it works, there are many gaps in our understanding of the transmission and symptoms of Zika.  Originally thought to be only a mosquito-borne virus, there has been recent evidence to suggest it can be spread sexually.  However, there is a lack of concrete research as to how this may or may not happen.  The bottom line is that although the U.S. has many agencies and policy networks capable of handling and preventing public health crises, they have to know what they’re dealing with in order to respond appropriately.  Zika is transmitting more quickly than clinical research can provide us with concrete answers.