Zika virus: a crisis created by decades of neglect
Lois Danks
volume 37
issue 3
June 2016

Fumigating a home in San Salvador, El Salvador, January 2016. Photo: Oscar Rivera / EPA

The mosquito-borne disease Zika that has now reached the United States could have been corralled decades ago. The first human cases of the Zika virus were discovered in 1952 in Uganda and Tanzania. With milder symptoms than other insect-carried diseases, like yellow fever, dengue fever, and chikungunya, Zika spread across Africa and Asia until it reached the Americas over 60 years later in 2015. So far, only one in five infected have symptoms such as rash, low fever, and sore joints.

After more than 3,500 babies were born with very small heads and brains (microcephaly) in Brazil within four months, World Health Organization (WHO) finally declared in February 2016: “the recent association of Zika infection with clusters of microcephaly and other neurological disorders constitutes a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” Guillain-Barre syndrome, which causes paralysis, is another recognized severe complication of Zika.

Diseases of poverty. Decades of neglect and indifference to this and other diseases of poverty in poorer regions of the globe left many viruses free to spread and mutate into more dangerous forms. Mosquitos, which thrive in stagnant water, poor sanitation and high population density, are the carriers of many viruses. Underfunded public health systems in poverty stricken areas, inadequate housing, and increased rainfall brought by El Niños all contribute to their increasing numbers. Climate warming allows mosquitos to survive further and further from the equator and spread diseases to larger areas of the globe.

Communities most likely to be impacted are also those least equipped to deal with it. Health officials in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Haiti and Puerto Rico have advised women to avoid getting pregnant. But rural women and those living in urban pockets of poverty lack access to birth control. If they do happen to get pregnant, abortions are banned in Catholic Central and South American countries. The lack of adequate public healthcare for microcephalic children is another massive burden on families and communities.

Thousands of people across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean have suffered from Guillian-Barre syndrome or had babies with stunted brain development due to Zika fever during pregnancy — which should have been prevented by basic public health sanitation, housing, and education efforts. Just putting screens on windows and removing standing water would have had a big impact.

The big pharmacies, like Glaxo Smith-Kline, have no interest in helping — there are not enough huge profits in developing a vaccine that poor people cannot afford. Now that the media is fanning public fear and the Zika threat is touching the United States, the resulting increase in government funding and potential paying customers have made it a new profit opportunity for smaller pharmaceutical companies.

Pharmaceutical entrepreneurs rush in. Obama recently requested $1.8 billion from Congress and moved some funding from Ebola prevention to Zika. As the virus spreads, new pharmaceutical companies are requesting millions from the Center for Disease Control.

They are pushing for early Food and Drug Administration approval of everything from devices to filter blood (Premiere Biomedical) to genetically modified sterile mosquitoes (Oxitec) and never before approved DNA injection vaccinations (Inovio). In fact, Inovio is hoping for another chunk of funding like the $45 million it received for Ebola research.

The rational solution. Since diseases of poverty like Zika, dengue, and yellow fever eventually become global threats, the approach to stopping them must address the neglect that causes them. This means massive international efforts to bring adequate housing and public healthcare infrastructure to everyone. Publicly funded research should be on prevention efforts and diagnostic tools long before experiments with DNA vaccines and engineered GMO mosquitoes for capitalist profits. Every year of delay allows the suffering and death of millions more mothers and their babies and an appalling retreat of civilization.

Send feedback to the author at lfdanks@yahoo.com.

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