A new virus has begun to spread concern across the Americas. In May of 2015, the first case of the Zika virus was reported in Brazil, and ever since, the virus has continued to spread beyond the Brazilian border at an alarming rate. Prior to arriving in Brazil, the only cases of Zika have been found and isolated in areas of Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. This fact has lead many researchers to believe that the virus first arrived in Brazil during the 2014 World Cup, when Brazil served as the host nation. Regardless of how Zika made its way into the Americas, the main priority is preventing the further spread of this unusual disease.
Zika got its name from the Zika forest, a forest in Uganda where the virus was first discovered in a monkey in 1947. It is a tropical disease that is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which inhabits areas from Argentina all the way to the southern United States.
Even though the symptoms of those infected with Zika are usually very mild—rash, fever, headaches, and joint pain—the top concern with this disease is the link between babies born with microcephaly to mothers infected with Zika. Microcephaly is a rare but untreatable neurological disorder where the circumference of the head is abnormally small due to the lack of full development of the brain.
Countries such as El Salvador have gone as far as advising women to not get pregnant until 2018. Obviously, and with Zika affecting regions with strong Catholic roots and strict anti-abortion laws, it may be nearly impossible to implement this idea.
Dr. Margaret Chan, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) said,
“After a review of the evidence, the committee advised that the clusters of microcephaly and other neurological complications constitute an extraordinary event and public health threat to other parts of the world.”
For the fourth time ever and the first time since the Ebola outbreak, WHO declared a global emergency over the spread of the Zika virus. The Pan American Health Organization says Zika has spread in 24 nations and territories in the Americas, and it is estimated that as many as four million people could be infected by the end of the year. Since only around 20% of people infected actually show symptoms, the outbreak could be much worse than what people predict. However, it is noteworthy to say that the U.S. faces a significantly reduced risk for an outbreak since its mosquito control systems are far better than most other countries.
Chan, along with many other experts, also points out that the El Niño could also make matters worse as wetter and warmer weather patterns can increase mosquito activity, reproduction, and lengthen the duration of mosquito seasons. The spread of the Zika virus will only continue to get worse as summer draws closer and the mosquito season begins anew.
While initially many believed that the disease could only be transmitted to a person by means of a mosquito vector, health officials in Dallas County, Texas reported that a patient acquired the disease from another person. This is only the third ever reported case of the Zika virus being transferred from one person to the other by means of bodily fluids (the other instances occurred in 2008 and 2013). These occurrences are extremely rare, however, and health officials say that this new development is noteworthy, but the main threat of spreading the disease is by mosquitoes.
August 5th, 2016 marks the date of the opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games hosted in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. In the midst of the worst economic recession since the 1930’s, the organizers have already cut over half a billion dollars to balance the operating budget. The Olympic Games, along with the 2014 World Cup, were supposed to bring an economic and morale boost to the largest country in South America.
However, with an inflation rate hovering over 10% and unemployment numbers soaring, Brazil’s crumbling economy, paired with deep political corruption, has instead been the top storyline for the past few years. With around a half million people expected to travel to Brazil during the Olympics, the arrival of the Zika virus has put the status of the Summer Olympic Games into even deeper trouble.
“I’ve been around since Los Angeles in 1984, and we haven’t been in such a situation where a country that is staging the games is in such a vulnerable situation,” said Matt Smith, the World Rowing executive director, in an interview for the Associated Press.
While officials insist that the presence of the Zika virus will have a minimal effect on the Rio Olympics, it is inevitable that Brazil’s economy will take another disastrous blow. Even though only pregnant women are put at severe risk by the virus, many tourists will likely be scared to travel anywhere in South or Central America.
With a vaccine expected to be ready only until the end of this year, only time can tell just how impactful this virus will truly be.