By now, everyone knows about the virus spreading around the Western Hemisphere, but not everyone understands exactly how serious Zika virus might be. While Brazil continues to prepare for Rio’s Summer Olympic Games ― slated to begin on August 5 ― thousands of public health experts are clamoring for officials to call the whole thing off.
However, the Olympics has been cancelled only three times since it was reinstated in 1896, and all three times were due to World Wars I and II. Is Zika really enough of a danger to dash the dreams of thousands of world athletes?
The story of Zika begins in Uganda in 1947. Possibly for centuries, the Zika virus has spread far and wide across Africa and Asia, but for myriad reasons ― from poor media coverage to possible racial immunity ― much of the world failed to learn about the disease until 2013, when a single infected individual traveled to Brazil and got bitten by a mosquito.
Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus are two species of mosquitoes that have enormous distribution, thanks in no small part to globalization. They are hardy creatures, capable of living in diverse environments and carrying dozens of equally diverse diseases. In addition to Zika, the Aedes mosquitoes are known for hosting and transmitting such diseases as yellow fever and malaria, making them some of the deadliest animals on Earth.
Zika moves through a number of bodily fluids. In humans, it is present in the blood ― which is how it makes its way into mosquitoes ― and semen, meaning it is possible for Zika to be sexually transmitted. In fact, sexual transmission of the virus has been confirmed in at least 10 countries, including Brazil and the United States. Worse, scientists have reason to believe that Zika is preserved in male reproductive organs, meaning men infected with Zika can be contagious for months after their initial symptoms have disappeared. Still, mosquitoes remain the most common vector for the virus, by far.
Unlike the most famous epidemic diseases ― the black plague, the Spanish flu, polio, smallpox, etc. ― the problem with Zika is not deadly symptoms. In fact, most people infected by the disease experience mild or no symptoms whatsoever; aside from rare cases of internal bleeding, the worst symptoms include painful joints, fever, rash, and headache, which will disappear after seven days. However, thanks to public health officials using spatial analysis, a strong correlation has been found between Zika outbreaks and incidents of Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS), which causes extreme muscle weakness and often death.
For a small section of the public, Zika virus is even more dangerous. Pregnant women may experience the same symptoms as everyone else, but their unborn fetuses react to the virus by developing horrific defects. Most babies who survive the disease are born with particularly severe microcephaly, which means an undersized head and brain damage. Scientists believe some infected fetuses undergo fetal brain disruption sequence, in which the brain and skull completely collapse while the scalp skin and facial features continue to grow.
Though it may seem that Zika is not a threat to the average person, the truth is Zika is what many are calling a delayed epidemic. The effects seem mild to most adults; meanwhile, the next generation is being eviscerated by abnormalities and defects. There are no treatments to cure microcephaly or its corresponding brain damage ― only therapies to make the children more comfortable as they age. Worse, doctors and scientists are not certain they fully understand the course of the disease.
Public health officials at the World Health Organization (WHO) and elsewhere suspect that adults and children are at-risk for long-term neurological deficits, but as yet we don’t have enough information to be certain.
What is obvious is the unchecked outbreak raging around Brazil. Despite mosquito control efforts, insect-borne disease transmission is up more than 600 percent in comparison to just one year ago. Worse still, Rio de Janeiro is at the epicenter of the outbreak, with the highest case numbers in all of Brazil, and it remains the host city for the 2016 Olympic Games.
Every two years, more than 500,000 foreign visitors flood into the Olympics host city, spending millions of dollars on hotels, food, attractions ― and, in the case of Brazil, leaving with thousands of Zika infections. These infections will spread in the tourists’ countries of origin, dramatically increasing the speed of global spread and placing more stress on already over-taxed public health professionals. With less time to develop vaccines, antiviral drugs, insecticides, and other technologies, scientists will be less likely to prevent a massive-scale pandemic.
According to the International Olympic Committee, the games are meant to foster “social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” Hopefully health officials will use these facts to decide the best path forward for the Olympic games.
Featured photo credit: shutterstock via shutterstock.com