The Zika Threat

Is your state prepared for a potential Zika epidemic?

Should we treat the outbreak of the Zika virus as the new Ebola? With international health authorities holding emergency meetings to counteract the rapid spread in South America and confirmed cases in the United States, it is critical to look at lessons learned from the recent Ebola outbreak and how we can improve on response efforts with Zika.

Governors across the U.S. are taking preemptive action to help increase monitoring and response capabilities. On February 3, Florida Governor Rick Scott declared a public health emergency in seven counties due to sixteen confirmed cases of Zika. While none of the confirmed cases were locally transmitted, emergency status will better help state and federal coordination in tracking of the virus spread.

The New York State Department of Health has expanded free testing of travelers with Zika symptoms to include all pregnant women returning from trips to infected areas, whether or not they show signs of the virus. While precautionary testing will help local jurisdictions stay in front of the spread of the virus, health officials will have to carry out the balancing act of using two tests to confirm cases of Zika, one that tests for the active virus and one that detects antibodies. For the latter, it can take up to two weeks to receive test results for those screened, begging the need for development of more advancement in diagnostic test detection for the Zika virus (a process that could take several years).

The Zika virus is transmitted from an infected species of mosquito, called Aedes Aegypti, which are attracted to trash-like plastic bags, wrappers, or non-biodegradable containers. Plastic and rubber waste can be chemically treated by spraying certain chemical insecticides to kill the adult mosquito, a process known as vector control. Aggressive vector treatment will help to prevent the spread of the virus, but will not eliminate the threat of it.

Despite it being relatively unknown, Zika has been around for a while. From the 1950s through the 1970s, there was a movement to eradicate the virus Aedes aegypti from North and South America. Due to a coordinated effort by public health & nonprofit organizations and national governments, there was great success in reducing the occurrence of plastic and rubber waste through vector control; however the occurrence of the virus was not fully eradicated.

While only 20 percent of those infected will experience symptoms from the Zika virus, there are serious consequences from contracting this infection for pregnant mothers and unborn children. It is known to cause birth defects, including microcephaly, which causes small heads and brain damage in infants. Zika can also lead to Gullain-Barré syndrome, a dangerous autoimmune disorder that can cause paralysis. Brazilian health authorities have recorded 4,000 cases of microcephaly in infants since the outbreak began last fall, thirty times the normal occurrence.

Global efforts are underway to encourage the rapid advancement of a vaccine to prevent the infection of the virus. While it typically takes a vaccine 10 years to go through the full development process, health officials at the World Health Organization (WHO) are looking to collaborate on a rapid advancement approach to a vaccine by enacting early regulatory pathways to target investigational vaccines in the same family of virus, termed flaviviruses.

In the U.S., Congress and the White House are also supporting preparedness efforts to prevent rapid spread of the Zika virus, with the Obama administration requesting increased funding for emergency operations within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and research and development of a vaccine and diagnostic tests through the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Congress took aggressive action when Ebola was spreading throughout North America, which has helped in the preparation for a possible Zika epidemic. The WHO has predicted up to four million people will be infected in the Americas by the end of this year, and the virus has now affected at least 25 countries and territories, most of them in South America and the Caribbean.

On February 8, the CDC announced Zika is a Level 1 threat and is closely monitoring travel for persons from affected countries, as well as cases currently identified in the U.S. While the Zika virus is not as deadly as Ebola, its effects on infants are reaching epic proportions in South America, and it could easily turn into a global pandemic threat.

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