Zika Virus: What We Don’t Know (A Lot)

zika virus

Zika Virus: What We Don’t Know (A Lot)

Despite the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention downplaying any effect on the coming Summer Olympics in Brazil, Zika virus continues to mystify many researchers. The viral disease, mild or asymptomatic in most cases, can attack brain and other nerve cells in fetuses, leading to major failures in growth and development, such as microcephaly.

U.S. planning for Zika has become more important now that the state of Florida has identified what might be a locally-acquired infection in Miami. Not yet confirmed, all previous cases were related to travel in the epidemic zone.

Certainly, the major concern with Zika virus is its effect on the unborn fetus. But now, new cases are leading some to question what we really know about the virus. Rare, at least at present, they suggest that more people may be at risk than originally thought.

The CDC reports that, in New York City, a woman who contracted Zika during a trip to the epidemic zone has infected her male partner through sexual intercourse. Previously, Zika was seen as a purely male-to-female or male-to-male transmission. Now it’s possible that vaginal fluids might have the same ability as semen to spread the virus. If a female can transmit it to a male (or another female?), it widens the population at risk significantly.

For example: A woman travels to Brazil, gets Zika, and transmits it, through vaginal secretions, to her partner when she arrives home. Her partner has sex with others and transmits it through, say, seminal fluid.

It’s thought that Zika virus exists in seminal fluid for 2 months or more, but what if it lasts longer? Ebola virus lasts 6 months or more there. Is six months long enough to avoid sex or use protection?

In Utah, an elderly man dies of complications due to Zika virus. Was there some other medical issue that made it a fatal event? Did he get a particularly bad strain? How many strains are there?

Now, Fox News reports that a family caregiver is found to have been infected. How did it happen? Exposure to blood? Air-borne droplets? No one really knows.

Does this now mean that we have to treat the virus as contagious by casual contact between humans, as opposed to requiring an infected mosquito bite or intimate relations? Should we, then, revamp our contagion protocols for medical professionals?

This may seem to be major overkill to you. Zika doesn’t even cause symptoms in 80% of cases, and most infected babies are still born without microcephaly. The fact that it’s a “silent” infection in many, however, might be most concerning.

A pregnant woman with an asymptomatic Zika infection won’t know her fetus is affected until ultrasounds tests reveal poor growth of the fetal head or other signs of damage. An asymptomatic male or female won’t know bodily fluids are contaminated.

Another question: Are there long-term effects of Zika virus on the development of otherwise normal-appearing babies? We won’t know until milestones, like walking and talking, are delayed or fail to be reached. That might take years to determine.

Zika is not Ebola. People aren’t dropping dead in the streets, so a calm, reasoned approach to this virus is important. We have much to learn about Zika virus. Funds are needed to study it; we can’t allow politics to “infect” the Zika debate. Politicians should let the researchers do their job to make sure that this mysterious disease doesn’t become a medical crisis in the U.S., now or in the future.

Due to lack of funding, it may be too late to avoid the complications of Zika Virus in the U.S. this summer. If we’re smart, though, we’ll facilitate the research needed to truly understand it and its short- and long-term effects.

Joe Alton MD is a disaster/epidemic preparedness expert and NYT/Amazon bestselling author of books in the genre, including “The Zika Virus Handbook”.

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