Can the Zika virus be contained? On Monday, in what CNN calls an unprecedented move, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised pregnant women and their partners to avoid traveling to areas outside of Miami, where they have attributed 14 cases of Zika to local mosquitos. So, what does this mean?
At Spotlight Health in June, the CDC’s Anne Schuchat, Anthony Fauci (director of NIAID), and FDA commissioner, Robert Califf joined moderator Jeffrey Goldberg to discuss Zika’s health risks, the United States' legislative response, and priority policies for combating the virus going forward.
Zika began as a medical mystery. When cases of newborns with microcephaly, a severe brain malformation, began turning up in the Americas in 2014, doctors quickly started searching for a common thread. Scientists soon linked the virus to a daytime-active Aedes aegypti mosquito—recognized as the “cockroach” of mosquitos by health experts.
“It’s unprecedented,” Schuchat explains. “We have never had a mosquito-borne virus that can cause a serious birth defect.”
At the time, Americans saw the spread of Zika as a vague, distant concern. However, reports of the virus in Puerto Rico and now Florida mean Zika is now a reality for US citizens as well.
According to a recent article in The Atlantic, there is a number of Zika cases in the United States that federal-health officials failed to count. Researchers at Northeastern University reportedly argue that there were 25 times more Zika cases in June than the CDC reported for.
Unlike other diseases, Zika has confounded the experts because its effects vary dramatically depending on whom it infects. For the average adult, Zika is little more than an inconvenience: Patients feel achy and feverish for ten days until the virus runs its course. But in pregnant women, especially in their first trimester, the virus is capable of causing catastrophic damage to the developing fetus. Mothers exhibiting no symptoms of the virus can give birth to babies with Microcephaly.
“Americans are seeing a disease which has two very, very different components to it,” Fauci explains.
The experts agreed that improved testing was essential to combat the virus. Much like Ebola, Zika has emerged rapidly, leaving the medical community unprepared to diagnose and treat new cases, as they jumped to crisis proportions. A vast majority of those infected with the virus throughout Puerto Rico were symptomless and unaware, allowing the virus to spread dramatically and with stealth.
Califf explains that much of the crisis response protocols developed during the Ebola outbreak are now proving useful to stem the spread of Zika.
Until now, Zika has remained tightly controlled throughout the Americas. This is largely credited to civilians lack of screens, air conditioning, and a high-density mosquito population. In Puerto Rico, officials were even more concerned due to a separate mosquito-borne virus known as Chikungunya that makes people extraordinarily vulnerable to Zika. In 2014, Chikungunya exploded throughout Puerto Rico, infecting 20-25 percent of the population. However, the virus was hardly acknowledged due to the Ebola outbreak. Fauci argued that it is almost certain that unless something dramatic changes, 25 percent of the population of Puerto Rico will be infected with Zika.
In February, President Obama asked for $1.9 billion of emergency funding to combat Zika. However, the legislation was stalled when the Senate agreed to $1.1 billion of emergency funding and the House countered with a proposal to siphon $600 million for Zika from Ebola funds and the Affordable Care Act.
“We want money that doesn’t have an offset,” Fauci argues. “It’s foolhardy to take it out of Ebola when Ebola is not done, we still have a lot more to do with Ebola.”
The experts discussed the possibility of releasing genetically modified mosquitoes to combat the disease at its source. However, the Aedes aegypti mosquito is particularly tenacious breed, able to breed and survive in tiny caps of water.
The panel agrees that moving forward, it seems certain that the federal government must develop a solution for us to contain the virus from spreading beyond Miami.
“We need to have a better way to deal with emergencies,” Schuchat says. “Because when you need the fire department to come and put out the fire, you can’t really wait for a lot of discussion.”
By Eliza Costas, Editorial Intern, Aspen Ideas Festival