As I was getting ready to leave my house the other night, a swarm of hungry mosquitoes lingered outside my house waiting for the chance to feed. Usually I don’t even think twice about this because on the East Coast, mosquitoes are very common this time of year. However, as mosquito season in North Carolina is ramping up, I can’t help but think about the Zika virus. I almost never do anything to protect myself from mosquitoes because, unlike the majority of Central and South America, a mosquito bite is nothing more than an itchy nuisance for me. For millions of others in the southern hemisphere, a mosquito bite is a potential risk of malaria, yellow fever, and currently the infamous Zika virus. Now that cases are being reported right here in the United States, it might be wise for us to keep some repellent handy.
Although the Zika Virus was discovered in 1947, it didn’t make national headlines until May 2015 when the major outbreak hit Brazil. The mosquito-borne virus shows no signs of slowing down, as it has spread to over 20 countries in the Southern Hemisphere. As many diseases unfortunately do, the Zika virus has an especially severe impact on newborn babies, who come into contact with the virus from the mother’s bloodstream. The Zika virus has been linked to over 4,800 cases of microcephaly in Brazil alone. In some cases, the virus is severe enough for babies to be born with Guillain-Barre syndrome, afflicting their nervous system. In other cases, Zika can be fatal, although birth defects have been much more common.
As more and more cases pop up, pregnant women, especially in Central and South America, are worried about contracting the Zika virus. Since there are no vaccines or drugs available yet to prevent / cure this virus, one certain way to avoid passing on the Zika virus is to avoid pregnancy. A result, some governments have recommended that their citizens delay pregnancy for the next 6 months to 2 years, until treatments are more readily available, or the outbreak is curbed. Governments warn that travelers are at risk, too – the CDC has posted a list of over 30 countries that pregnant women should avoid traveling to.
So what about the women who are already pregnant in affected regions in Central and South America? For many pregnant women in these at-risk regions, there are few answers, high risks, and rampant uncertainty about how to deal with the Zika virus. Sadly, the only defenses these women have are bug spray and mosquito nets. As a result, panic and chaos has gripped the region.
To combat the chaos and panic, pharmaceutical companies across the globe are quickly responding. According to the Financial Times, about 15 companies are already developing vaccines, while about 20 others are developing diagnostics tests for the virus. Hopefully, there will soon be products in production to combat the Zika virus.