A lot has changed with the Zika story since I first reported about it back in March. I’ll share the new developments in a moment. But first, let’s take a quick look at what we already know about this disease.
Researchers first observed the Zika virus in Uganda in 1947. It spread gradually across Asia and the South Pacific, where it typically caused mild viral infections. Then, according to a team of U.S. and Chinese scientists, the virus mutated. It jumped across the Pacific and began to replicate faster, and invade deeper into human tissues, including the brain.
In adults, the virus now causes paralysis, similar to Guillain Barré Syndrome. And in babies born to infected mothers, it causes abnormally small brains and brain damage.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) continues to claim we don’t need to worry about Zika in the U.S. because the mosquitos that spread it only thrive in tropical regions.
But that’s just outright misinformation.
Experts have observed this type of mosquito throughout the southeastern U.S. And they can survive the winter as far north as Washington, D.C., where mosquito-born malaria once thrived until the 20th century. Plus, you can catch the virus through sexual contact. (So be careful how you scratch that itch.)
Down here in south Florida, people seem more acutely aware of the immediate threat. I see coverage in the local papers about how to protect yourself against infection that I don’t see in the national news. And here, it makes the front page.
Zika threat closer to home than most people realize
Perhaps they recognize the Zika threat here because the virus has already infected hundreds in Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States just 1,000 miles off the coast of Florida. The government in Puerto Rico is already having trouble containing the Zika outbreak, as the warm, wet climate is a natural paradise for the mosquitoes that carry the virus.
Of course, grinding poverty — due to decades of economic mismanagement — aggravates the circumstances on this Caribbean island. The Puerto Rican economy is in shambles. And thousands of government workers — who could have performed the island’s mosquito control — were just laid off.
Experts estimate that 25 percent of Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million inhabitants will come down with the Zika virus in the next year. Eventually, more than 80 percent could become infected. That means thousands of infections of pregnant women this year and many more in future years.
I do read a lot in the national news regarding Zika’s impact on Americans traveling to Carnivale and the Olympic Games in Brazil. But these events are nothing compared to the threat of Puerto Rico, one of the most popular vacation destinations for Americans. Airplanes and cruise ships disembark thousands daily and bring them back to ports all over the U.S. a short time later. Anyone could bring the Zika virus back home, seeding the virus into “domestic” mosquitos, or passing it on through sexual contact.
It’s still all about the money in the U.S.
The CDC has already committed $25 million and has asked Congress for another $225 million. President Obama has pledged $1.8 billion in new funds against Zika in addition to his ridiculous new, redundant “cancer moonshot” that overlooks proven, natural answers to cancer.
Putting the money debate aside, it will be refreshing to see the CDC focus on its real mission, which should be trying to control acute infections. In recent years, the CDC has wasted time and money pursuing mythical dietary guidelines and salt restrictions for chronic diseases, and other misadventures into public health.
I, for one, am glad to see it focused again on infectious disease. The CDC used to stand for Center for Communicable Diseases. Then it became the Center for Disease Control, because the bureaucrats there didn’t want to get left behind in the federal funding games with NIH.
The CDC plans to focus on protecting pregnant women in Puerto Rico and elsewhere. They want to control mosquito populations as best they can, over the next six months, as the climate will just get hotter, wetter and more hospitable to transmitting the virus.
Unfortunately, we won’t know what effect these measures will have had until October, when babies conceived during the epidemic start being born.
- “Puerto Rico Braces for its own Epidemic,” The New York Times (www.nytimes.com) 3/19/2016