A Bite That's Worse Than the Bark

Fear. It’s an emotion that humans feel in order to command a response of caution. It can happen for many reasons, but often it’s the unknown that drives the feeling. Rarely is that more evident than when it comes to our health, let alone the health of our children. It’s for that reason that the Zika virus has gotten the US government involved, from the CDC all the way to President Obama himself.

Beginning in May of 2015, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) confirmed the first Zika virus infection in Brazil. That infection led to reports of the Guillain-Barre syndrome, a condition that causes pregnant women to give birth to babies with birth defects and, at times, poor pregnancy outcomes. Since it’s appearance in South America, the syndrome has spread north, out of South America and into Mexico in the North American continent. While no cases have been reported in the continental United States, it has appeared in Puerto Rico and been reported in North American travelers who are returning from International trips. However, that could soon change.

Late last month, the World Health Organization made it known that the virus had begun “spreading explosively” throughout the Americas, and an estimated three to four million infections have occurred in the region over the last twelve months. The rapid spreading is due to it’s primary method of transition:  The mosquito. Now, with the swift migration of the disease northward, the President is applying pressure on the CDC to expedite diagnostic tests, vaccines and therapeutic drugs. Unfortunately vaccine development typically takes years.

The ‘typical’ development process has several steps, from development to trials to approval and licensure. The exploratory stage that involves basic laboratory research can often take as much as two to four years and, as we wrote a few months ago, 95% of medicines actually fail during development. There is hope, however. The Zika virus fits in the same family as several others that have already begun vaccine creation, including dengue, West Nile and chikungunya. Unfortunately, falling under the umbrella of other viruses provides no guarantees that a solution is any closer at hand, but it is likely that they offer a roadmap for developing something similar against the new threat. In fact, the Daily Mail has already reported that the US may have a number of vaccines that are ready for human trials though one likely won’t be ready to go live for several years., Not to be out done, the Daily News has reported that a Canadian developer has presented an an aggressive timeline that would claim to produce an antidote prior to the end of 2016.  Still, neither opportunity is a guarantee that a solution is at hand.

While we’re left having to wait for a solution, whether it be a cure or a preventative measure, all we can do is help protect people against developing the virus by educating them on how to care for themselves and their loved ones. Because the primary carrier method is through mosquitoes, it’ll be important to take precautions in order to guard against the breeding of the bugs and to protect yourself from being bitten by mosquitoes that survive.    

Wikihow.com has compiled a great list on how to guard against breeding. Below are a few highlights.

  1. Eliminate Standing Water | Stagnant water can quickly become a mosquito breeding ground. Make sure that places where water stands are cleaned regularly, and if the water is collected purposefully make sure you replace it or use something, like a fountain, to keep the water circulating.
  2. Keep lawns, bushes and weeds neatly trimmed and well maintained | This is more for keeping the mosquitoes away than breeding new ones. Tall grass and full shrubbery provides locations for the insects to rest and hide from other predators.
  3. Eliminate or fill nooks, crannies and holes | These are locations that can harbor mosquitoes so that they can lay their eggs. If you can’t remove them from patios, trees or your yard, consider filling them with sand.

The CDC has also put together a number of pointers for keeping yourself from being bitten. Again, here are a few highlights.

  1. Wear insect repellent | According to the CDC such chemicals are safe and, when used as directed, they are the best way to protect yourself and those around you from getting bitten.
  2. Cover Up | It’s tough to think about in the hot summer months, but, weather permitting, cover up with long sleeved shirts and pants and keep your skin covered and reduce risk.
  3. Keep bugs outside | If air conditioning isn’t an option make sure that all windows and doors have screens that are in good shape and will keep the bugs out of your home.

Even though there is no way to guarantee personal safety, these tips can help reduce your risk. If you do happen to contract the illness, the most common symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain or conjunctivitis. Also, make sure to avoid being bitten if you are infected to reduce the spreading of the syndrome. The CDC has also made additional suggestions and information available for women who are pregnant.

Caution is always something that should be shown when a new illness appears, especially when it is one we are ill prepared to face. However, as we educate ourselves and continue to learn about the virus we can work together to reduce risk and limit its ability to spread. Then, hopefully, we can all learn to face it without fear.