BRASILIA, Brazil — The Zika virus took the international community by surprise in 2015. The mosquito-borne virus infected more than 1.5 million individuals in more than 30 countries, and in Brazil, impacted tourism and participation in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Owing to a massive reduction in the cases of Zika in Brazil, there is a growing sense of optimism in combatting the disease. Finally, after more than 18 months, the Brazilian government decided to end the public state of emergency instituted prior to the Olympics.
The Zika virus, which passes to unborn children through the mother’s placenta, causes birth defects and associated disorders like microcephaly in newborns. Babies with microcephaly have smaller skulls and underdeveloped brains and central nervous systems. The virus also causes other pregnancy-related problems such as miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth and eye defects.
Now for the good news. Brazil’s state of emergency ended in November 2016, and the World Health Organization recently reported that between January and April 2017, the number of cases of Zika in Brazil fell by a record 95 percent when compared to the same period last year. No deaths have been recorded this year either.
Then-president Dilma Rousseff may be able to take credit for the drastic turn-around for ordering a successful mosquito eradication program. By fumigating more than 20 million homes across the country, thousands of health workers helped minimize the breeding grounds of the mosquito carrier, Aedes aegypti. The large-scale campaign effectively countered the threat, although Brazil continues its vector control efforts.
Despite the recent good news, many rural and poorer communities remain vulnerable to Zika in Brazil. Poor education and a lack of information must be addressed because many people remain unaware that stagnant water can be a breeding ground for carrier mosquitos. In the long run, bolstering public healhcare, social protection and legislation can help provide permanent solutions to the Zika problem in Brazil, but continued surveillance and regulation is necessary.
Recently, Brazil experimented with selected breeding methodologies to eliminate Zika. Development and medical funding currently collectively stands at $7 billion. As a specific vaccine or possible cure to the problem remains elusive, the world looks to scientific research to help minimize the risk.
To better understand the nature of the genetic makeup of the virus, scientific research has honed in on genome sequencing. As a result, scientists successfully track the spread of Zika in Brazil. Scientists are also experimenting with the release of genetically modified mosquitos into the environment to prevent the breeding of new carrier generations and cut down the number of existing larvae. This research can also be used to effectually address other viruses caused by mosquito carriers in Brazil, where Chikungunya and Yellow Fever are especially widespread.
Despite these successful developments, the international community remains wary of the Zika virus. Medical research on Zika in Brazil is still steadily developing, but for now, governments and stakeholder groups must collaborate to safeguard the interests of the people.
– Shivani Ekkanath