The Zika Freaka

Illustration by Caroline Cao

Illustration by Caroline Cao

On February 26th, the CDC announced that the U.S. now has 147 cases of Zika. Last month, soccer star Hope Solo famously told Sports Insider that if she had to decide to go to the Olympics today, she wouldn’t go. Despite public outrage, she insisted that she wanted the prerogative to have a child free of the risk of fetal microcephaly, an incurable birth defect in which a baby’s head is significantly smaller than expected due to abnormal brain development.
We have the West Nile virus, Chikungunya, Malaria, Dengue fever, and even the St. Louis encephalitis. All are devastating mosquito transmitted diseases that cause fatalities all over the world. But most recently, the hot topic of infectious disease has only been the Zika virus. This is why I sat with the foremost expert on the topic at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL): Dr. Michael Diamond, a medical school professor who researches the innate and adaptive host immunity and virology to many different types of mosquito-borne infections, including Zika.
What makes Zika so much scarier than the well-established Dengue fever or Malaria? All can cause similar common symptoms of fever, rash, muscle and joint pain, and, if serious and left untreated, can lead to death. Although these manifestations can be uncomfortable, Dr. Diamond cites the fears of the unknown and loss of control as explanations for the widespread disease, “The last thing people who want to get pregnant or parents-to-be want to do is be worried about a congenital malformation. They control as much as they can: no smoking, no drinking, eating well. But being bitten by mosquitos is something they cannot control once they step outside.” It is understandable that women who are of childbearing age are fearful of microcephaly that can cause irreparable lifelong damage to the family and child. And this lack of control is what pushes Zika over the edge in terms of being one of the more unnerving diseases.
Dr. Diamond also spoke about how the risk of a Zika epidemic in the U.S. is significantly lower due to the fact that Aedes aegypti or tiger mosquito is the most common mosquito transmitting. This bug is the same mosquito that transmits Dengue fever and Chikungunya and is endemic only to the Gulf Coast. In addition, most Americans minimize contact with mosquitoes since we spend most of our time indoors or in cars, with screens and air conditioning. The majority of cases seen in the U.S. are individuals who travelled and brought the virus back. Although mosquito bites are by far the most popular mode of transmission, it can also be transmitted person to person through bodily fluids such as semen, breast milk, and blood. Certain places are already screening blood donations and banks.
There has been a little bit of pushback from others in an article from Tech Times that the congenital birth defects were not caused by the Zika virus but by pesticides put into the water in attempt to decrease number of breeding mosquitos. However, these claims are unfounded by data since these pesticides have been utilized since 2014 with no effect and not in the most endemic areas of encephaly. In addition, recent research has shown that the Zika virus has been found in the brain tissue of newborns whose mothers’ were diagnosed with Zika during their pregnancy.
This upcoming summer Olympics are hosted by Brazil, a country in the midst of the Zika epidemic. After the Solo comment, many wonder if attendance from athletes or spectators will decrease due to the disease. Dr. Diamond is unsure, “We wondered the same thing about Mardi Gras, but people will still go unless there is a large outbreak at the beginning of the Olympics. Each virus has highs and lows of transmission and it just depends how the cycle hits around the time of the Olympics and no one has any way of knowing beforehand.” In the meantime, more research can be done to stop or slow down the spread of Zika as well as any other of the many mosquito-borne illnesses that affect millions of people each year. Dr. Diamond studies the science behind the virulence of the disease, but he mentions many angles to attack the problem: public health – through better prevention education of affected populations, especially pregnant women; animal studies – to reduce effectiveness of mosquito vectors; chemistry – to produce better larvicides and pesticides; biology – to understand how the disease is caused and try to generate therapeutics to combat the virus.


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Connie Gan is a junior from Hudson, Ohio. She can be reached at connie.gan@wustl.edu


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