With health officials this week declaring three Britons infected and the first reported case in Denmark, Zika virus is establishing itself as a truly global health priority. But what is the Zika virus, where has it come from and how might innovation play a role in tackling this global health challenge?
The Zika fever originates from the Zika forest in Uganda in 1947 and carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito (the same mosquito which carries Dengue), however no case had ever been seen outside of Africa until May 2015. Since the first case in Brazil, it is believed up to 1.5 million people have been affected, with numbers continuing to rise. Cases have been reported in over 14 countries thus far, with the expectation that the virus will spread to all countries in the Americas.
Resulting in flu-like symptoms such as mild fever, headache, and red eye (three quarters of cases are asymptomatic) the virus was not believed to pose a significant threat to global health. However, a recent 20-fold increase in the number of babies in Brazil suffering from microcephaly (underdeveloped brains) has been linked to the virus.
The international community has finally taken notice. The Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta has recently warned pregnant women against travelling to these infected areas, and to delay getting pregnant for the next two years.
It is unknown how this virus was originally transported to Brazil, but increased global temperatures and international travel may be to blame. This spread is significant for Brazil particularly worrying due to Carnival and the upcoming Rio Olympics, which could act as further catalysts for the virus, affecting tens of millions more.
Currently deaths from Zika are rare, however the intellectually disability and developmental delays resulting from microcephaly can be life threatening.
There is also currently no vaccine or cure – patients are told to drink plenty of fluids and rest. Therefore the only way to tackle the virus is through prevention, however unlike the malaria mosquito, the Aedes aegypti mosquito is most active during the day, so mosquito nets are of limited affect. Therefore if we are to prevent an international global health crisis, rapid international cooperation is essential. Even if there is investment into a vaccine, this could potentially take years.
This is where innovation could be essential. Brazil is leading the way in educating those of the dangers of stagnant water (where mosquitoes breed) and funding research into the first vaccine against Dengue Fever, which is carried by the same mosquito. The Brazilian Health Minister, Marcelo Castro, is also said to be developing a testing kit for rapid detection, allowing rapid and effective diagnosis.
Another interesting idea is the potential for introducing genetically modified, sterilised, mosquitoes, which when introduced to the population causes a reduction in mosquito population by 90%. Investment and research is underway- however more could be done.
In the past, with a lack of financial incentives, international crisis can occur. Let’s look at Antibiotic Resistance or Ebola as examples– with limited push for new drug research, development can be slow resulting in essentially preventable deaths. We don’t have to repeat these mistakes; with strong international cooperation we could find cost-effective, innovative solutions to tackle the Zika virus, which could be the key to preventing a future pandemic. But we must act fast before it is too late.