Bucknell Institute for Public Policy (BIPP): Why we’re nervous about the Zika virus

Jackson Pierce, Contributing Writer

The Bucknell Institute for Public Policy (BIPP) will use this section to engage the University community in a discussion about emerging public policy topics and issues. Upcoming publications will include commentary from interns of BIPP in segments, bringing to the forefront important events, trends, and decisions occurring both locally and globally.

With the threat of Ebola fading out of the news cycle, there’s a new virus rising through the hemisphere to fixate our worries on. South and Central America have been swept by a rash of outbreaks of the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne illness. Active transmissions have reached such a critical mass that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued travel health notices to those flying to South America. Since the first detection of the virus in 2015, Zika has spread to 33 countries around the equator. These reports do not bode well, given that the 2016 Summer Olympics are scheduled to take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The sudden influx of visitors from all over the world could enable Zika to grow into a global pandemic.

According to the CDC, the Zika virus spreads primarily through infected mosquito bites. Symptoms include fever, joint pain, bloodshot eyes, and skin rashes. Only one in five infected individuals will suffer from these symptoms, and even then the symptoms may only last for a few days. There are no known vaccines or cures for the virus, but suggested treatments are the common remedies prescribed for most illnesses: rest and proper hydration. Why does a virus with non-life threatening symptoms warrant such a strong response from the CDC?

The severity of Zika lies in the strong suspicion that the virus is linked to neurological disorders and serious birth defects. Zika can be transmitted from a pregnant mother to her child during pregnancy or birth. According to a situation report from the World Health Organization (WHO), of the 33 countries reporting Zika circulation, seven have reported a concurrent spike in cases of microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome. Microcephaly is a birth defect in which an infant is born with a significantly undersized head, and Guillain-Barré syndrome is a rare autoimmune disease in which the immune system damages the nerve cells, usually resulting in muscle weakness and paralysis. One of these countries is Brazil, which has reported over 4,000 babies born with microcephaly since October. The Brazilian Ministry of Health has since suggested that women refrain from becoming pregnant until the epidemic has passed. The CDC is still investigating the correlation between the virus and these severe health risks.

For those living in areas afflicted by the virus, the WHO and CDC both recommend use of insect repellent, long clothing, and making efforts to remove mosquito breeding habitats. The CDC has been aware of Zika for some time now, and their website indicates their confidence in their laboratories and well-equipped personnel. The 2016 Summer Olympics would bring a major economic boost to Brazil, but the potential for a terrible epidemic lingers, especially if more scientific proof is discovered regarding Zika’s relationship to other diseases.

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