What the Federal Government Is Saying About the Zika Virus – The Atlantic

“We all remember when people reacted too late to Ebola,” Schumer said at a press conference Sunday, where he also pushed for the WHO to designate Zika as a public-health emergency. “And there was a lot of fear. They caught up with it finally, and it didn’t spread. But we don’t even want to have to go through that with Zika. We want to stop it before it gets here.”

Zika doesn’t have nearly the same effects as Ebola, a deadly virus that sparked a West African outbreak in 2014. Perhaps in an effort to head off criticism similar to the kind it got during the Ebola outbreak, the White House and federal health officials have been transparent about their predictions regarding the virus’s spread and their plans so far to combat it. Officials have issued very specific guidance to Americans regarding Zika: Pregnant women should reconsider traveling to affected regions, which include the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. At a press briefing Thursday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest called the government’s “real concern” about the virus its “correlation [with] a particular birth defect.” A day earlier, he’d emphasized that unless you’re pregnant or soon-to-be pregnant, the risks of the virus aren’t so serious.

In a CNN op-ed published Monday, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Tom Frieden, summed up the virus’s estimated reach this way:

[W]e do expect, unfortunately, that Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands could have many infections with the Zika virus, and we will certainly see U.S. travelers returning with Zika infections, just as we saw travelers returning with dengue and chikungunya infections. We could see isolated cases and small clusters of infections in other parts of the country where the mosquito is present. But from the information we know now, widespread transmission in the contiguous United States appears to be unlikely.

The nuance of the threat Zika currently poses to Americans—which officials are saying is, in essence, a very small one—can be lost as people scroll through their social-media feeds and see the numbers of cases climbing. And it doesn’t help that one of the most concerning potential consequences of the virus can be communicated to the world in such a visual way: in the form of dozens of photos of sweet-faced babies possibly infected by the virus. As my colleague Julie Beck noted earlier this month, Zika’s typical symptoms are mild: headaches, fever, rashes, red eye, and joint pain, among others. They typically manifest for less than a week, if at all, and researchers say the virus probably doesn’t stick around in the body for very long. But what is alarming is its as-yet-unofficial connection with an “explosive” uptick in a rare birth defect called microcephaly in infants in Brazil, which causes abnormal head formation. (Though, adding to the confusion around the disease, the number of microcephaly cases, as well as the number related to Zika, may be inflated.) The virus also could be linked to an uptick in cases of an immune disorder called Guillain-Barré.

Researchers and public-health officials don’t know enough about Zika because the virus is new to the Western Hemisphere, and they readily acknowledge the gaps in their understanding. It’s part of a family of viruses, called flaviviruses, that infect mosquitos, ticks, and their ilk. Some have familiar names: the aforementioned West Nile, dengue, yellow fever, and chikungunya. The Zika virus is transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes, which are found in roughly 30 states, including all of the American South. (The New York Times has a handy explainer on the virus and its history here.) Researchers at federal agencies are ramping up their investigations into the virus now, following a directive from President Obama. As it stands, there aren’t any diagnostic tests available commercially, nor are there vaccines or antiviral drugs available. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told reporters during a press call last week that a vaccine “probably” won’t be available “in the next few years.” Researchers in the Americas didn’t have any real motivation to develop these tools until recently, after an outbreak began in Brazil last year, infecting an estimated 1 million people, and then spread to 20-odd other countries, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.


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