The Ebola Virus, as viewed under a microscope (CDC.gov)
While the Zika outbreak has captured much of the attention of the news, there is some important news that just released on the Ebola outbreak that occurred last year. On February 19, 2016, a major change occurred in the United States’ response to the Ebola crisis. The Department of Homeland Security decided to end its enhanced screening procedures for those who were arriving in the United States from countries in Africa that experienced the Ebola epidemic. The screenings included temperature checks at five of the major international airports in the country, including JFK, Newark, Dulles, Chicago, and Atlanta. This decision was made after the World Health Organization declared that the Ebola outbreak was over. It has been more than 42 days since the last known Ebola patient recovered, marking a period twice as long as the incubation period of the disease.
For now, it looks like the Ebola crisis has ended. In my next post, I will discuss where Ebola came from, and what we are doing to prevent an outbreak like this from occurring again in the future.
One of the most common problems noticed when a new disease emerges and the scientific community races to study it is the problem of under reporting. Under reporting in disease research can be seen at the case-reporting level (when local doctors incorrectly diagnose a disease and do not alert the proper authorities) or at a larger level, where whole countries do not properly understand and report the prevalence with a disease.
Under reporting can have serious consequences in infectious disease research because when scientists need to understand the severity of a disease, they will be unable to get an accurate and true picture. In the current Zika Virus outbreak in South America, one of the major problems being seen is the lack of accurate records as to the prevalence of microcephaly in children before the Zika outbreak. Scientists want to examine if there truly are more cases of microcephaly now than before, but the lack of records is proving to make the task difficult to complete.
Another example of where under reporting is proving to be a problem is in the study of Melioidosis, also known as Whitmore’s disease. Many people have never heard of this disease, (I haven’t heard of it before writing this post!!) but it is one of the most prevalent diseases spreading through many developing nations, such as India, Brazil, and other tropical areas. Melioidosis is caused by a shape-changing bacteria in contaminated soil and water, and it can infect both humans and animals. A new study, published in Nature Microbiology, estimates that this disease is under reported in 45 countries where it is known to exist, and is present in 34 more countries that do not report it yet. This is a serious problem because Melioidosis can be fatal within 48 hours of symptoms occurring. In these developing nations, where access to healthcare is limited and people live very close to one-another, this under reported disease can cause a serious problem in the future.
When you turn on your TV or open a news app on your phone, you are surrounded by talks about the Zika Virus. While the news focuses on Zika Virus as it is spreading through the Americas, little is being reported on its history in the world. Earlier this week, an article written by Jon Cohen was published in Science that briefly traces the history of Zika virus from when it was first discovered to the present day. Below, I will present an overview of some of the main historical facts presented in the article to set the stage for more posts about Zika in the weeks ahead…
The first reports of Zika Virus occurred in April of 1947 from a group of scientists studying yellow fever in the Zika Forest in Uganda. These scientists observed a rhesus monkey with an abnormal fever. At the time, they were unsure what the virus was. The virus was isolated and injected into mice to check for the possibility of transmission.
A few months later, the same scientists discovered the same virus infecting the Aedes africanus Again, this virus was checked for transmission and it matched the virus isolated from the rhesus monkey. The scientists named it Zika Virus, after the Zika Forest that it was discovered in.
One of the first scientists to examine Zika Virus’ mechanism of transmission was William Bearcroft. Bearcroft injected himself with isolated Zika Virus and waited until he had symptoms of the disease – headaches and a slight fever. Once he noticed symptoms, Bearcroft allowed female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes to bite his left arm. He took these mosquitoes to healthy mice, allowed them to bite the mice, and later observed the symptoms of Zika in the mice. This simple experiment confirmed that Zika Virus is transmitted by mosquitoes to humans and other organisms.
Since these initial discoveries, Zika has not been extensively studied, as other, more pressing and emergent diseases came to light
The latest outbreak, currently occurring, is the largest recorded Zika outbreak. Due to the greater number of infected individuals, scientists will be able to study the virus more accurately and in greater detail.
In today’s outbreak, many news articles are detailing the correlation of Zika Virus and increased rates of microcephaly (abnormally small heads) in newborns in countries such as Brazil. While this at first sounds terrifying, it is important to realize that there is no proven link between the two observations, and it is currently only a possibility. The CDC has published a study detailing how there maybe an association between Zika Virus and Microcephaly, but cautioned that prior to the Zika Virus fear, newborn head sizes were not recorded as accurately in many regions of Brazil, meaning that cases of microcephaly prior to Zika’s appearance could have slipped past the statistics. Currently, only 270 cases of suspected microcephaly have been confirmed, from the initial, newly identified 4,180 cases. Of these 270 newborns, only six were found to have the Zika Virus inside of them. It is important for this message to get out to the general public so fear and panic does not set in. While we do not know much about Zika Virus yet, it is important for the scientific community, the news media, and the general public to hold out on passing judgement until claims are proven.
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