This year, Zika virus reached epidemic proportions in the Americas, the Caribbean and the Pacific. Unfortunately, as cases of Zika virus increased, the reality of what we still did not know about the disease became a central theme of the story. To that end, scientists around the world quickly turned their attention to getting some answers. The result is that as 2016 comes to an end, we know much more about Zika virus and the disease it causes than we did previously:
- Transmission — While the primary means of transmission is from the bite of an infected mosquito, we know that the virus can also spread from an infected mother to her unborn child and from an infected adult to his or her sexual partner even if the infected person does not have symptoms.
- Long-term health problems for babies if mom is infected during pregnancy — Babies born to women infected during pregnancy may suffer from microcephaly and hearing loss.
- Development of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) — Zika infection was previously thought to be relatively benign; however, recent findings suggest that some people may develop GBS. The Puerto Rico Department of Health, in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has setup a GBS surveillance system to better understand the risk of developing GBS and how that relates to recent Zika infection.
- Mosquito control — Because of the time it will take to develop a licensed vaccine, mosquito-control measures may serve as a more immediate opportunity to control the spread of Zika virus. Unfortunately, many countries do not have mosquito-control programs in place and the type of mosquito that most commonly transmits Zika is not easily controlled by established methods; therefore, new methods need to be developed. The World Health Organization and others have been working on control methods that interfere with the life cycle of the mosquito through genetic engineering, radiation or introduction of bacteria.
- Vaccine development — Animal and human studies are underway to develop a vaccine that could protect people, particularly women of childbearing age, from being infected if bitten.
While much is still to be understood, the progress has been admirable. The recent experience with Zika virus underscores the importance of continuing to fund research into pathogens that might not seem problematic today but could be tomorrow’s next news story.