Bioethics Blogs

Zika Virus: An Emerging Health Threat

Credit: Kraemer et al. eLife 2015;4:e08347

For decades, the mosquito-transmitted Zika virus was mainly seen in equatorial regions of Africa and Asia, where it caused a mild, flu-like illness and rash in some people. About 10 years ago, the picture began to expand with the appearance of Zika outbreaks in the Pacific islands. Then, last spring, Zika popped up in South America, where it has so far infected more than 1 million Brazilians and been tentatively linked to a steep increase in the number of babies born with microcephaly, a very serious condition characterized by a small head and brain [1]. And Zika’s disturbing march may not stop there.

In a new study in the journal The Lancet, infectious disease modelers calculate that Zika virus has the potential to spread across warmer and wetter parts of the Western Hemisphere as local mosquitoes pick up the virus from infected travelers and then spread the virus to other people [2]. The study suggests that Zika virus could eventually reach regions of the United States in which 60 percent of our population lives. This highlights the need for NIH and its partners in the public and private sectors to intensify research on Zika virus and to look for new ways to treat the disease and prevent its spread.

Zika virus infection can be spread by yellow fever mosquitoes (Aedes aegypti), and experimental evidence suggests the virus also can be transmitted by Asian tiger mosquitoes (Aedes albopictus). Aedes mosquitoes—already known for transmitting other viral illnesses, such as dengue and chikungunya—have a wide and expanding global distribution, including in the United States [3].

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.