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As the Zika virus spreads, so too does the concern among public health officials. This may the greatest threat in a generation for some regions, and they are urgently seeking ways to stop it. One can hardly see the news without a report of cases of the virus being detected in some new location or country, and the devastating effects it has on the unborn.
The virus is spread by the one creature on the planet responsible for more death and human suffering than any other. That creature is the tiny mosquito: it’s estimated that 2-3 million deaths are caused by them each year around the world.
Although Zika was first discovered in Uganda in 1947, periodic outbreaks of the virus have mostly occurred in areas of Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and tropical Africa. Due to the recent rapid spread of the disease in over 30 countries, it is now considered a pandemic.
The symptoms of the Zika virus itself are mostly mild, and last anywhere from a few days to a week. Many who contract the virus, in fact, never even realize they have Zika, mistaking their symptoms for a cold, the flu, or something else. The main concern with Zika is not the mild, short-term effects of the virus itself.
Rather, it is the potentially deadly effects the virus has on developing fetuses when an infected mother passes the virus to her unborn child. In many cases the virus kills the developing child, resulting in miscarriage.
Those babies who survive Zika exposure in the womb, however, are being born with a disfiguring illness known as microcephaly. In addition to causing a smaller-than-normal brain and head, the neurodevelopmental disorder also causes severely impaired intellectual development, seizures, and a shortened lifespan.
Although no vaccine currently exists for the virus, that doesn’t mean steps aren’t being taken to address the issue. The following are measures that countries are currently taking to either slow or prevent the spread of the deadly disease:
On Saturday, February 13, 2016, Brazil launched an all-out assault on the mosquitoes that carry the deadly Zika virus. The assault didn’t involve the direct killing of the insects, although that was the ultimate goal. No direct military firepower was used, although the military was involved. It was an unconventional assault that was mostly about getting the word out.
Using thousands of soldiers, Brazil’s military went door-to-door throughout the country handing out informational leaflets and insecticide. The leaflets encouraged residents to do everything they possibly could to eliminate the tiny insect. Recommended measures included spraying the insecticide around their homes, using mosquito netting while sleeping, wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts, and other measures. Most importantly, Brazil got the word out that mosquitoes were transmitting Zika and that everyone had a role to play in stopping the spread of the deadly virus.
Most would never guess the humble automobile tire would play a role in the spread of the Zika virus, but it certainly does. Old tires that are left lying around outside are notorious for collecting small pools of water. And mosquitoes find these tiny bodies of standing water irresistible places to lay their eggs.
Puerto Rico, which recently declared Zika a public health emergency, is waging war on the mosquitoes that carry the disease by draining the small bodies of water where the insects breed. One of the chief culprits is old tires, which are found lying all around the island. They are found outside people’s homes, in dumps, and elsewhere. To combat the U.S. territory’s tire problem, emergency legislation was recently passed to collect and dispose of the tires. Crews are also working tirelessly to drain other small standing bodies of water, wherever they are found.
In the United States measures are being taken to keep Zika out of the blood supply. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is recommending U.S. citizens who have traveled to areas where the Zika virus is present to wait at least four weeks before donating blood to be absolutely certain they are not carriers. There have been no reports of Zika being found in the blood supply to date, but the FDA is taking no chances. The four-week waiting period is considered more than sufficient to ensure the virus is no longer present in a person’s body after returning from an area of concern.
Due to the severe effects of the neuro-developmental disorder microcephaly that are passed from expecting mothers infected with the Zika virus to their unborn babies, public health officials in several countries are encouraging the use of family planning practices to completely avoid pregnancy until the Zika pandemic ends.
In El Salvador, for example, public health officials are strongly encouraging postponing having children until 2018 at the earliest. This public health policy is being echoed in Colombia and Jamaica.
Avoiding Travel to Areas of Concern
One way to stop the spread of Zika to other countries is to either encourage or prevent citizens from traveling to countries where the virus is currently active. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) believes future outbreaks in the country will be from citizens traveling to countries where the virus is present and then bringing it home with them. Although the United States is not currently preventing anyone from traveling to countries with active Zika outbreaks, the CDC is strongly encouraging pregnant women and women of childbearing age to avoid traveling to these countries until the pandemic ends.
The Zika virus has become such a pervasive problem that some are calling for “Hail Mary” proposals to stop the spread of the virus. One such proposal involves releasing genetically modified mosquitoes into the wild that have been designed to sterilize and perhaps even eliminate the entire mosquito population. Another proposal is to bring back DDT, a powerful insecticide, to wipe out as much of the mosquito population as possible. These proposals are controversial, of course, and are not without their critics. Completely eliminating the mosquito population, for example, could prove detrimental to some species of freshwater fish that feed off of mosquito larvae. And DDT has been blamed for both threatening and potentially eradicating bird populations.
Although several companies are currently working on Zika vaccines, large-scale trials are at least 18 months away. In the interim, combating the spread of the deadly virus hinges primarily on mass public education efforts. Just as Brazil has already proven, it will literally take an army to get the word out about how the virus is spread and steps individuals and communities can take to decrease the mosquito population and protect themselves until a working vaccine is finally ready.
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