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Zika: Scariest Virus Since HIV?

Common Culex mosquitoes might spread disease in U.S., expert warns

The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) has called Zika “possibly the scariest virus since HIV” for various reasons, including that it is “all but proven” to cause birth defects.

Other viruses are known to harm neonates. For example, genital herpes can be fatal to a newborn, but this can be overcome by choosing a C-section over a natural birth, the ACSH says. Rubella (German measles) also causes birth defects, but an effective vaccine has been available since 1969. But neither virus is spread by mosquitoes, like the Zika virus, which is why the current scare is different and why Zika is still a big unknown, the ACSH notes.

The Zika virus is primarily spread by mosquitoes of the Aedes genus, which prefer warm climates. For people living in cooler areas, however, a key, unanswered question is: will Culex, a family of mosquitoes common to the entire U.S., be able to transmit Zika virus? Culex is a carrier of West Nile virus, the ACSH points out.

The council lists other reasons why Zika might be the scariest virus since HIV:

  • Zika has been detected in the amniotic fluid of two Brazilian women who gave birth to babies with microcephaly, suggesting that the virus can cross the placenta. A few days earlier, Zika was found in the brains of babies whose mothers were probably infected with the virus during their first trimesters.
  • The virus has been detected in semen, urine, and saliva.
  • Eighty-two cases of Zika virus infection have been reported in the U.S., all from travelers. There are no cases of infections that were contracted in the U.S.

Infectious-disease expert Dr. Paul Offit, a trustee at the ACSH, offered his view of the Zika virus, as follows:

  • There is very little known about the virus.
  • It is not unreasonable that Zika could infect more-common mosquito species, such as Culex, which would put much of the U.S. at risk.
  • Offit does not believe that humans or birds will be important vectors for the virus. Instead, a substantial number of infected mosquitoes in a given area would probably be required to cause an outbreak.
  • Although successful vaccines exist for other flavivirus infections, such as yellow fever, it will take years to develop a Zika vaccine.
  • Offit is concerned about the “worldwide vaccine infrastructure.” At one time, 28 drug companies were doing vaccine research; now there are four.

In related news, House Republicans said President Obama’s administration should use $2.7 billion in unspent funds earmarked for the Ebola outbreak instead of asking for $1.8 million in new funding to reduce the spread of Zika, according to an article in the Washington Times. In a letter to the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said that Congress could replace the Ebola funding later, if needed.

Sources: ACSH; February 19, 2016; and Washington Times; February 18, 2016.

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