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As the new darling of the worldwide infectious disease family, Zika virus has emerged as one of the most talked-about public health issues currently. But where did it come from? Why has public knowledge exploded about Zika? What are the possible ramifications as Zika continues to spread through the Americas? Do we really care?

According to several reported cases, Zika virus is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito which can feed multiple times, landing on several human hosts in the course of one blood meal, thus spreading infection exponentially. As with all other vector-borne infectious diseases, only one arm of infectious disease prevention lies on proper vector control. Screening, using insecticides with DEET, and proper clothing can help lower mosquito infection transmission rates.

David Quammen writes for National Geographic:

This virus was first isolated in Uganda in 1947, within a small enclave called Zika Forest, near the west shore of Lake Victoria, where researchers from the Rockefeller Foundation were studying yellow fever. Ironically, the earliest known victim of Zika virus infection in Africa was an Asian macaque – a rhesus monkey, set out in a cage in a treetop as bait for the mosquitoes that carry yellow fever virus. Instead of that virus, it’s blood yielded this new thing, dubbed Zika.

Since Zika is closely related to the flaviviridae family, which includes yellow fever, dengue and chikungunya, the possibility of mini-outbreaks remains very real, following historical footprints. With the intimidating emergence of several infants born with microcephaly, Zika peeks its head out as a form of a “latent” disease; not terribly deadly within infected adults, but rather deals horrendous consequences to the unborn fetus. If not thoroughly checked, an entire generation of infants could possibly be affected in endemic areas. As northeastern Brazil continues to become an endemic location, where Zika becomes established in the local ecology, greater urgency becomes apparent to push for funding for a Zika vaccine:

Dr. Ernesto Marques, a Zika virus researcher who splits his time between the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Vaccine Research and Brazil’s FioCruz research institute, said if funders were willing to put up $2 billion — and to provide it all now rather than in chunks over time — he thinks the work could be done in under eight years.

The economics of developing a Zika vaccine may also prove challenging.

Because the virus seems to pose the most severe threat to newborns, pregnant women who live in or plan to travel to parts of the world where Zika circulates might race to line up if a vaccine becomes available. Women who want to become pregnant would likely join them in line.

But because most people who are infected with Zika don’t even realize it — and because newly developed vaccines are generally not cheap — the market among people who aren’t women in the childbearing phase of life may not be strong.

Still, Marques thinks that won’t be a problem. He envisages a scenario where girls are given the vaccine before they reach reproductive age — which is the original marketing approach for human papillomavirus or HPV vaccines.

While Zika remains more of a threat to Central and South America, there are real concerns about Zika spreading northward into the southern U.S. states, such as Florida and the Southeast, where warmer seasonal changes could incur a spike in mosquito growth, and disease transmission. There have already been imported cases diagnosed within the U.S. and concern is high. However, with new funding being proposed and slowly approved for a Zika vaccine, it’s imperative to provide these at low- to no-cost for those endemic areas. So, yes, we should care. Even if the impact of Zika spreading throughout the U.S. may be lower than those in already-established endemic areas, there is a real possibility for even greater spread worldwide.

After all, Zika is still in its infancy. Let’s not let it grow bigger.

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I've sometimes been called a conspiracy theorist. It's intended as an insult. I wear it as a badge of honor - it means I pay attention.

As with most scare propaganda, the mainstream media was "reporting" all sorts of connections between Zika and microcephaly early in the game. However, even the scare mongers at the New York Times admit that, of the 2,200+ reported microcephaly cases, only 404 infants have been confirmed as having microcephaly, and only 17 tested positive for Zika:

But how many of the babies actually have microcephaly — and whether the condition was caused by the Zika virus — is still far from clear.

Of the cases examined so far, 404 have been confirmed as having microcephaly.

Only 17 of them tested positive for the Zika virus. But the government and many researchers say that number may be largely irrelevant, because their tests would find the presence of the virus in only a tiny percentage of cases.

An additional 709 babies have been ruled out as having microcephaly, according to the government, underscoring the risks of false positives making the epidemic appear larger than it actually is.

The remaining 1,113 cases are still being investigated.

Statistically and from a purely scientific perspective, doesn't sound like much of a connection as the mass media made it to be. Not that science stops the scare mongers at the WHO from declaring a global health emergency on the lack of evidence:

At a news conference in Geneva, Dr. Margaret Chan, the director general of the W.H.O, acknowledged that the understanding of the connection between the Zika virus and microcephaly was hazy and said that the uncertainty placed "a heavy burden" on pregnant women and their families throughout the Americas. She said the emergency designation would allow the health agency to coordinate the many efforts to get desperately needed answers. Officials said research on the effects of Zika in pregnant women was underway in at least three countries: Brazil, Colombia and El Salvador.

"The evidence is growing and it's getting strong," Dr. Chan said. "So I accepted, even on microcephaly alone, that it is sufficient to call an emergency. We need a coordinated international response."

But the agency stopped short of advising pregnant women not to travel to the affected region, a precaution that American health officials began recommending last month. Some global health experts contended the W.H.O.'s decision was more about politics than medicine. Brazil is preparing to host the Olympics this summer, and any ban on travel, even just for pregnant women, would deliver a serious blow to the Brazilian government.

The government contradicting itself and changing stories are common political practices when you are playing upon people's fear (e.g., see the recent reporting of the Ebola outbreak). Considering what a mess Brazil is right now (and Latin American countries in general), it seems far more likely that poverty, pollution, and vitamin deficiencies are affecting microcephaly rates in Brazil:

According to ATCC,6 a "global biological materials resource...organization whose mission focuses on the acquisition, authentication, production, preservation, development, and distribution of standard reference microorganisms," the Zika virus7 — which they sell for about $500 — causes paralysis and death.

In humans, Zika infection typically causes only mild flu-like symptoms, if any, and there does not appear to be any prior evidence suggesting it might cause birth defects.

That certainly doesn't exclude the possibility, of course, but there are many other factors and co-factors that offer a far more likely and rational explanation for the rise in microcephaly in this area of Brazil, besides Zika-carrying mosquitoes.

For starters, the "outbreak" is occurring in a largely poverty-stricken agricultural area of Brazil that uses large amounts of banned pesticides.8,9,10

Between these factors and the lack of sanitation and widespread vitamin A and zinc deficiency, you already have the basic framework for an increase in poor health outcomes among newborn infants in that area.11

Environmental pollution12,13 and toxic pesticide exposure have been positively linked to a wide array of adverse health effects, including birth defects. When you add all these co-factors together, an increase in microcephaly doesn't seem like such a far-fetched outcome.

For an "emergency" like Zika to come out of the blue after 50+ years of stagnation, I'm much more likely to believe a genetic engineering experiment went bad (like the coincidence that "Oxitec first unveiled its large-scale, genetically-modified mosquito farm in Brazil in July 2012") or an accidental release of germs from a biowarfare research lab than I am to believe anything that comes from the mainstream media or WHO. (After all, what were US biological warfare researchers doing in the Ebola zone? See also: the US Army inadvertently shipped live anthrax to Australia that was only disclosed many years later.)

So, should we care? Yes - but caring means caring about the truth and science, paying attention to evidence instead of fear and politics.

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