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The Zika Virus: Fear. Panic. Overreact.

Han Kim

Han Kim discusses the Zika virus.Han Kim, professor of public health, says that’s what we do about new diseases that involve babies. Read what he has to say about the Zika virus.

by Lily Wolfe (’18)

What is the Zika virus?

The Zika virus is traditionally transmitted strictly by the same mosquitos that transmit chikungunya, dengue, and yellow fever. It has been around in parts of Asia and Africa for a long time, so this is not a new or unknown disease. Many people were unaware of the disease because it didn’t cause serious problems.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms are mild, and most people are asymptomatic. For the one in five people who do show symptoms, they are nothing compared to other mosquito viruses. Common symptoms are body aches and a mild fever, and death is very rare from the Zika virus. Just like other viruses, your body develops antibodies to fight it, and then it leaves your body. You won’t have it the rest of your life, so any women who get the virus and then later become pregnant should not worry.

Is there a cure or vaccine?

The pharmaceutical industry works with a business model, and if there is no market they will not spend the millions or billions of dollars to develop a drug. Unfortunately, the Zika virus was very low on the priority list because the previous market was in underdeveloped countries where those affected did not have the money to buy medications or a vaccine, so very little was being done to manufacture one. Now, with the virus being all over the news and scaring people, I think there will be a new market developing.

How does it spread?

In the last few years we saw it moving from Africa, across the South Pacific and into Samoa and Tonga. It then reached Easter Island, and the next thing we knew it was in Brazil. The virus most likely came here from people migrating and traveling since we are such a mobile society.

Is there a direct link between microcephaly, a condition where babies are born with unusually small heads, and the Zika Virus?

Microcephaly is a rare condition that is usually linked to other fetal infections. What we saw in Brazil is that microcephaly cases went from about 150 per year to 4,000, and it seemed to have happened right as Zika arrived in Brazil. We think it has a causal role, but there is no definitive link. Association doesn’t mean causation, but it is a hint that we need to investigate further and that needs to be clarified.

Should the United States pursue a travel ban?

No. You should always take precautions because dengue and chikungunya are always there, but it is difficult to get the Zika virus. If you are pregnant, you should definitely be careful and adhere to the CDC warnings, but the chances of your child getting microcephaly are fairly slim. If you are pregnant, I think the bigger question to ask is if you should be traveling and flying.

Some countries, like El Salvador, are telling women to not get pregnant for two years. What does that do to a country?

Countries that are very socially conservative have very limited access to family planning. Only 20 percent in El Salvador can afford it, and abortion is completely illegal. I am not sure what they expect women to do, because they are basically just telling women to not have sex. That is problematic, but it also shows how desperate these countries are.

Bottom line, should the United States be panicking?

Concerned, yes. Panicking, no. I think the Zika virus is something we are overreacting to, because that’s what we do with new diseases that involve babies.



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