The Zika virus has barely been on the global radar a few weeks and already the words ‘pandemic’, ‘crisis’ and, in one case, ‘dystopia’ are being flung around.
The alarm was first raised towards the end of last year, as reported cases began to spread across Brazil, Ecuador, Columbia and El Salvador. Zika itself is a relatively minor ailment. Though it can cause rashes and joint pain, 80 per cent of sufferers show no symptoms at all. Spread through the Aedes aegypti species of mosquito, which also carries dengue and yellow fever, it was of little concern until very recently.
But this all changed when Brazilian authorities reported a steep rise in cases of microcephaly, a disorder which causes children to be born with undersized heads, which causes seizures, convulsions and neurological defects. Since October last year, 4,000 cases of microcephaly have been reported in Brazil alone, up from just a few hundred previously. With speculation that pregnant women becoming infected with Zika is the cause of this spike, affected countries have been put on high alert.
The World Health Organisation (WHO), so pilloried for its feeble response to the ebola outbreak in 2014, has declared Zika a ‘public-health emergency of international concern’. The Brazilian government has declared war on the virus, sending the military to destroy potential mosquito habitats and fumigate affected areas. And Columbia, Ecuador and El Salvador, all of which ban abortion, have called on women to refrain from getting pregnant at all, sparking outrage from international women’s rights groups.
In this panicked climate, some have gone as far as to liken Zika to ebola, a spokesman for the Wellcome Trust insisting it was ‘in many ways worse’. But it doesn’t take much to unpick the alarmism. While ebola killed more than 10,000 people in West Africa, the spread of Zika has been relatively contained. Not only do the countries affected have far more robust infrastructure than those that were affected by ebola, but also, as Zika is spread through mosquito bites rather than touch, it poses little threat to the wider world. Given that Aedes aegypti mosquitos are unable to survive the colder climes of North America and Europe, it is likely to stay that way.