The World Health Organization (WHO) announced today it will be holding an emergency meeting on Feb. 1, 2016, to determine if the current Zika virus outbreak is a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern,” which can direct money and resources at the virus much faster. The last time the WHO declared an emergency of this magnitude was for the Ebola virus outbreak. The Zika outbreak is being linked to a number of babies being born with microcephaly, a birth defect that causes underdeveloped brains.
The WHO also said in its emailed statement that the virus has been “spreading explosively” in South and Central America, and that the “level of alarm is extremely high.” The Zika virus has been linked to women giving birth to babies with microcephaly and who were infected in the first 4-5 months of her pregnancy. After 20 weeks, the chances of the baby getting microcephaly drop dramatically.
The Zika virus, while normally not deadly to humans, is carried by mosquitoes after they bite an infected person, and it is being linked to the uptick in babies born with microcephaly. In Brazil, cases of microcephaly rose nearly 30-fold from 2014-2015, or roughly 4,000 cases, and lines up perfectly with the very strong El Niño event occurring along the tropical Pacific. (See video)
A few environmental activists are already using the Zika virus to further their own global warming agendas and saying climate change is fueling the recent uptick in outbreaks. But what’s fueling the outbreak is a strong, naturally occurring El Niño creating increased rainfall in Latin America. More rain means more mosquitoes, as they need water to lay their eggs. Plus the Zika virus has been around for decades, and requires an infected person to re-transmit the disease.
The Zika virus was first discovered in monkeys in Uganda’s ‘Zika’ forest in 1947 by scientists researching yellow fever. As the years passed, “it slowly migrated eastward around the globe, following oceanic trade routes with the help of infected sailors and mosquitoes trapped in the holds of ships.” Most people who get infected with the Zika virus feel like they have a bad cold or the flu and deaths are rare. What makes this virus so particularly menacing is “people can contract the virus if they are bitten by a mosquito that has previously drawn blood from another infected person.”
The mosquito that carries the Zika is known as the “Aedes aegypti, the same species of mosquito that carries dengue fever, yellow fever, and Chikungunya.” This particular mosquito requires pristine water to lay its eggs, which is why the increased precipitation is so important. As El Niños generate excess rainfall across Latin America, they also generate fertile breeding grounds for the mosquito. Empty tires, waterways, and puddles are favorite egg-laying areas.
Environmental activist Bill McKibben has already chimed in and is using the devastating birth defects resulting from microcephaly to further his global warming alarmism. He says it’s likely the uptick in Zika is a direct result of climate change. McKibben also writes that the Zika outbreak on “mosquitoes whose range inexorably expands as the climate warms.” Not so, say the experts. As far as Zika is concerned, the “mosquitoes in question have been well-established in the affected region for nearly two decades.”
Even more important than the changes in mosquito distribution is the change in rainfall caused by the 2015 El Niño, a naturally occurring event, whereby the waters along the tropical Pacific Ocean are warmer than normal. This warmer sea surface has untold affects on the climate all around the world, including an increase in rainfall in South America. This particular El Niño is one of the strongest recorded since recordkeeping began in the 1950s.
Currently, Latin America is in the midst of its summer and with the increased temperatures and rainfall caused by the strong El Niño, it makes it the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. Couples all that with the Zika virus, which has been steadily growing in the areas affected for nearly two decades, and you have the perfect storm. According to Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, this current outbreak was the result of “biological, economic, and climatic events” all occurring at once.
Heidi Brown, an epidemiologist at the University of Arizona, said the troubling thing in Latin America is the rapid rate of increase in cases. “It’s really quite baffling that we’re seeing this microcephaly where we haven’t seen it before,” Brown said. “If [a pregnant woman] gets Zika, is she likely to have a birth with microcephaly? That seems to be yes, but there could be other factors. Trying to get to that—that it’s causal—is a really daunting task. We’re still very early on this.”
According to a blog post Tuesday by Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. health officials have “confirmed the presence of Zika in tissue samples from some infants born with microcephaly.” These were babies born to women who had traveled to Latin America and were infected within the first 20 weeks of conception. If the mother is infected after 20 weeks of gestation, the chances of the baby being born with microcephaly decreases dramatically.
Collins also warns it is now “critically important to confirm, through careful epidemiological and animal studies, whether or not a causal link exists between Zika virus infections in pregnant women and microcephaly in their newborn babies.” Both Brown and Collins acknowledge that there could be other factors, but a woman infected with Zika within the first five months of her pregnancy increases her chance of giving birth to a child with microcephaly.
Health officials are also warning pregnant mothers to curtail traveling to areas known to have outbreaks of the Zika virus. As of today, there have been no documented cases of U.S. mosquitoes transmitting the Zika virus to people in the country. But officials have confirmed at least six cases of Zika virus in U.S. residents—Arkansas, New York, Virginia, Hawaii, and California—who traveled to infected areas and came home infected.
The NIH blog warns that when summer returns to the North America, the virus could spread to mosquitoes throughout the Southeast and Midwest, putting some 200 million people at risk. Garret says it’s not a matter of ‘if’, but when, the Zika virus will “make its way to the United States.”
There is no known treatment or vaccine for the Zika virus, and experts believe it will take years for drugmakers to develop one. The World Health Organization (WHO) said that it expects the infection to “eventually become common in the United States. Travelers from countries with outbreaks have already been diagnosed on their return to America.” That advisory may encourage researchers and drug companies to find a remedy faster than normal.
“The possible links, only recently suspected, have rapidly changed the risk profile of Zika, from a mild threat to one of alarming proportions,” writes WHO Director General Margaret Chan. She also emphasized, “researchers are still working to determine the exact link between the virus and birth defects such as microcephaly.”