Navigating the Zika panic

The epidemics of Ebola virus in West Africa and Zika virus in America highlight how viruses can explosively emerge into new territories. These epidemics also exposed how unprepared we are to handle infectious disease emergencies. This is also true when we consider hypothesized new clinical features of infection, such as the associations between Zika virus infection and severe neurological disease, including microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome. On the surface, these pathologies appear to be new features of Zika virus infection, however, causal relationships have not yet been established. Decades of limited Zika virus research are making us scramble to determine the true drivers behind the epidemic, often at the expense of over-speculation without credible evidence. In an article in F1000 and an accompanying Q&A we review the literature and find no conclusive evidence at this time for significant biological differences between the American Zika virus strains and those circulating elsewhere. Rather, the epidemic scale in the Americas may be facilitated by an abnormally warm climate, dense human and mosquito populations, and previous exposure to other viruses. Severe disease associated with Zika virus may therefore not be a new trait for the virus, rather it may have been overlooked due to previously small outbreaks. Much of the recent panic regarding Zika virus has been about the Olympics in Brazil. We do not find any substantial evidence that the Olympics will result in a significant number of new Zika virus infections (~10 predicted) or that the Olympics will promote further epidemic spread over what is already expected. The Zika virus epidemic in the Americas is a serious situation and decisions based on solid scientific evidence – not hyped media speculations – are required for effective outbreak response.

Links
Q&A in F1000
Article in F1000