Zika virus — separating some facts from hysteria

There has been a lot of hype and hysteria about the Zika virus, the latest viral “outbreak” to hit the headlines. And many of my readers have many questions.

It took some digging to get to the bottom of this latest crisis (including getting past the distracting “bottoms” in Brazil during Carnival).

As always, I like to begin at the beginning. And as with any health problem — especially infectious disease — it’s hard to know where it’s going if you don’t know how it began.

The Zika virus isn’t something that suddenly appeared out of thin air, contrary to popular belief. It’s been around since at least the end of WW II. But for the vast majority of its history, it was just a scientific curiosity.

Zika slowly begins to spread

Officials first noted the virus in the Zika Forest of Uganda in Central East Africa in 1947. Mosquitos carried it. And it only slowly spread across Africa and then into Asia.

Blood tests reveal that vast populations in India, Pakistan, and Southeast Asia have already been exposed to the virus. But until recently, there were very few cases of actual illness caused by this virus and few “outbreaks.” In fact, for more than a half-century, there were only 14 human cases of Zika infection.

Then in 2007, Zika appeared on the island of Yap, nearly 1,000 miles east of the Philippine Islands in the middle of the South Pacific. The last time Yap had been in the headlines was during the Japanese invasion in WW II. I knew it from my anthropology studies for the local use of huge stone discs as currency. (Good background for where the U.S. government and Federal Reserve are taking us.)

Suddenly — on this small, isolated island — there were almost 50 cases of Zika infection.

Five years later, in 2013, Zika showed up in French Polynesia, 5,000 miles away, across isolated, untracked ocean. Thousands contracted the virus, again on relatively small, isolated islands.

The outbreak in Tahiti was explosive and more than 28,000 people sought treatment. (That’s about 10 percent of Tahiti’s population.) The incidence of Guillain-Barré syndrome — an immune disorder that attacks the nervous system and causes numbness and paralysis of the limbs in a “glove and stocking” distribution — was 20 times higher as a result of this infection. Guillain-Barré had been typically seen as a side effect to vaccination. Researchers continued to observe small, subsequent outbreaks in New Caledonia, the Cook Islands, and Easter Island as the virus hopped across the Pacific.

We still didn’t hear much about it at this point, perhaps so as not to scare “destination” wedding planners. Furthermore, up until this point, only about 20 percent of people exposed to and infected by the virus developed any symptoms, which were typically mild and typically mistaken for other infections. In rare serious cases, it was mistaken for dengue fever.

Zika mysteriously moves across the Pacific

Then suddenly, Zika hopped across the rest of the Pacific Ocean, like the prevailing westerly trade winds, to infect an estimated 1.5 million people in Brazil. And now — it’s rapidly spreading through other parts of South America.

In the U.S., we are way behind the eight ball with Zika, since infectious diseases haven’t really been on the radar screen in the U.S. medical research world since WW II. In fact, in 2016, the CDC only allocated $629 million of its $6.98 billion budget to fighting emerging infectious diseases — which was supposed to be its mission. Instead, it spends more on failed campaigns for salt restriction, heart disease, blood pressure, and other chronic diseases — which are not their territory.

By contrast, scientists who had worked with the disease in Southeast Asia are taking a sensible approach. They are trying to learn more about those first outbreaks of the disease to understand what is happening now. I visited the infectious diseases department at Mahidol University in Bangkok during 1976 and 1977 when I was publishing my original research data on newly discovered distribution of an infectious disease in Southeast Asia.

In my view, they take infectious diseases very seriously in Southeast Asia. And I have a lot of respect for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN’s) knowledge of these emerging diseases. They even have their own medical publications.

According to Duncan Smith, a researcher at Mahidol, “something very, very different is going on [in Brazil]. We don’t know what it is at the moment.”

Zika mutated across the Pacific and became stronger

The viral outbreak appears much more serious in Brazil now, especially with regard to its association with microcephaly (abnormally small heads) in infants born to women infected during pregnancy. Researchers in French Polynesia have gone back to review the cases from the 2013 outbreak and found 17 cases of children with neurological conditions including microcephaly.

The more serious complications now observed in Brazil may simply be because there is a much larger number of cases and thus complications. The other possibility is that the virus mutated during its travels across the Pacific and has gotten much more dangerous.

Theories abound about what may have caused the virus to have become more dangerous, either because the virus is stronger, and/or the infected host is weaker.

It’s possible that aggressive efforts to push vaccination for Japanese encephalitis in Asia and the Pacific affected immunity to the Zika virus, according to Smith at Mahidol. Experts don’t know exactly how the virus traveled across the remote Pacific, but air travel was likely involved.

Some people blame the widespread use of pesticides for genetically modified crops…others blame the introduction of genetically modified (GM) mosquitos, or simply the vastly increasing numbers of infections.

Ecology and ecological biology are complicated, but woefully neglected, areas of research. And all the test tube medical research in laboratories doesn’t tell us anything about what is really going in Nature. We may be about to find out.

In the meantime, while this story unfolds, the best way to avoid Zika is to stay away from places where outbreaks have occurred or are occurring. So if you were thinking about going to Brazil for Carnival or the Olympics this summer, you may want to choose a different destination to give yourself a “sporting chance” at avoiding this disease. In any case, I will tell you all about how to avoid mosquitos, from A to Zika in the May issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter. If you’re not yet a subscriber, now is the perfect time to get started so you’ll receive this important issue.