We are now five months away from the start of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and planners are scrambling with a number of issues beyond standard planning schedules for an event of this size. The city has been facing a huge challenge of cleaning up the trash and raw sewage in Guanabara Bay and may fall short of its promise to meet environmental standards. And then there is the Zika virus that is continuing to spread throughout Brazil and the Americas.
In a previous post, The Zika Virus: Is a Pandemic Brewing?, we learned the following: “In May 2015, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) issued an alert regarding the first confirmed Zika virus infections in Brazil. Yesterday, the World Health Organization [WHO] projected that the virus could infect up to 4 million people this year. Since the Zika outbreak was first identified in Brazil in May 2015, the country has recorded around 4,000 cases of microcephaly. Before 2015, Brazil had fewer than 200 cases per year.”
Since this post was published, WHO launched a three-pronged Strategic Response Framework and Joint Operations Plan that:
- Provides a strategy that focuses on mobilizing and coordinating partners, experts and resources to help countries enhance surveillance of the Zika virus and disorders that could be linked to it, improve vector control, effectively communicate risks, guidance and protection measures, provide medical care to those affected and fast-track research and development of vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics. An estimated $56 million is needed to implement this strategy.
- Highlights women in the context of microcephaly and Zika virus disease. The risk of babies born with microcephaly has raised understandable concerns among women including those who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant.
- Advises the use of conventional and newer tools for mosquito control. Integrated approaches that tackle all life stages of the mosquito and fully engage communities are recommended. Measures for personal protection against mosquito bites, including repellents that are safe for use during pregnancy, are also covered.
As of February 18, 2016, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports the following countries with active transmission of the Zika virus:
The Americas: Aruba, Barbados, Bolivia, Bonaire, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Curacao,
Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Martinique, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Saint Martin, Suriname, and Venezuela, and the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (U.S. territory)
Oceania/Pacific Islands: American Samoa, Samoa, and Tonga
Africa: Cape Verde
Here in the United States, there have been 82 travel-associated Zika virus disease cases reported, but no (0) reports of acquired vector-born cases. [Source: CDC (updated on February 17, 2016)]
One of the primary challenges in combatting the Zika virus is that there is no vaccine, and developing one could take years. However, there is news about a genetic technology that is able to wipe out the mosquito carrying the Zika virus, and it could be developed within months, scientists say. According to MIT Technology Review [Ref 1], researchers at three American universities report that a “gene drive technology” was demonstrated last year in yeast cells, fruit flies, and a species of mosquito that transmits malaria. It uses the gene-snipping technology CRISPR to force a genetic change to spread through a population as it reproduces.
These researchers are already working toward a gene drive for Aedes aegypti, the type of mosquito blamed for spreading Zika. If deployed, the technology could theoretically drive the species to extinction. “We could have it easily within a year,” says Anthony James, a molecular biologist at the University of California, Irvine.
However, this gene snipping technology is not without its critics; they call into question the use of genetic technology to eradicate a species.
Because of the extent of the problems Aedes aegypti causes, some scientists favor using advanced technology to drive the species to extinction, at least in the Americas. Those who question or oppose using it acknowledge that the gene-drive technology could save human lives, but the feature that makes it so powerful—that mosquitoes themselves spread it—also raises concerns over unforeseen ecological consequences.
The challenge of controlling the spread of the Zika virus in Brazil has led government officials to recommend that women delay getting pregnant for two (2) years. The current population of Brazil is close to 209 million people. [Sources: CIA, Worldometer] Country stats provided by National Geographics show that São Paulo, with some 10.9 million people, is Brazil’s largest city—and one of the world’s largest metropolises. It is the leading industrial producer and financial center, but problems with pollution, overcrowding, and poverty abound. The Southeast region of Brazil includes São Paulo, Belo Horizonte, and Rio de Janeiro—the economic hub of Brazil, containing more than 40 percent of the country’s population.
Brazil is the dominant country in South America with nearly half of the continent’s area and people. Therefore, an outbreak of any disease is of major significance to Brazil and The Americas. There’s one more data point that needs to be discussed in this mix – roughly 65% of Brazilians are Catholic. The Catholic Church bans contraception and abortion outright. This has major public health consequences, especially for developing countries that are heavily Catholic, like Brazil. Making an impact on human behavior, especially sexual behavior, is a whole new can of worms on this battle field to defeat the Zika virus.
As timing would have it, Pope Francis suggested in a press conference earlier this week while traveling in Latin America, that it might be permissible for Catholic women to use contraception to avoid pregnancy if they are threatened by the Zika virus. [Ref 2] “Avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil,” Francis said. “In certain cases, as in this one, as in that one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear. I would also urge doctors to do their utmost to find vaccines against these mosquitoes that carry this disease.”
It is clear that women in Latin American countries are at high risk for contracting the Zika virus which is suspected of causing microcephaly and other severe birth defects. An exception to the Catholic Church’s contraception ban due to Zika could have huge impacts, since the virus potentially affects so many women in Latin America.
This is huge!
- We Have the Technology to Destroy All Zika Mosquitoes, Antonio Reglalado, Senior Editor, Biomedicine for MIT Technology Review, February 8, 2016, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/600689/we-have-the-technology-to-destroy-all-zika-mosquitoes/
- Pope Francis suggested women threatened by Zika could use contraception. That’s huge, Emily Crockett for Vox, February 18, 2016, http://www.vox.com/2016/2/18/11049812/pope-francis-contraception-zika