UNCG's Lloyd International Honors College sponsors a "Food for Thought" series each semester where experts from around campus speak informally to a small audience about provocative and/or timely issues. This past Wednesday (September 14), Dr. Rob Cannon and Dr. Janne Cannon, both experts in microbiology, stopped by to talk about "Zika: A virus at the intersection of public health, fear, and ethics." I admit that my knowledge of Zika was limited, basically, to the following: (1) it's transmitted by mosquitoes; (2) it can cause birth defects; and (3) that its pretty bad. What I didn't think much about was, as the Cannon's theme indicates, how this related to broader issues. Some highlights:
- The Zika virus, which is carried by mosquitoes of the genus Aedes, is not new. In fact, it was first isolated in the mid-20th century. We have not paid much attention to it largely because very few human cases were reported until 2007. The range of these mosquitoes is expanding northwards as the warmer climates that support them also shift northwards. There are now confirmed cases in south Florida, which makes it an American issue now.
- The scariest thing about Zika is that it can lead to devastating defects in the developing fetuses of infected women, including microcephaly. Even more unsettling, though, is that there simply aren't enough data to determine the probability that the fetus of an infected woman will actually develop serious developmental defects.
- In February, President Obama requested 1.9 billion dollars to fight Zika. While one might expect this to be a no-brainer for Congress, a number of hangups have emerged about how the money would be distributed. Republicans have requested that the funding be tied to budget cuts elsewhere and, in addition, do not want clinics associated with Planned Parenthood to get funding because of the the abortion services they provide. The latter sticking point doesn't make much sense because, although the legislation is complex, federal funding can't be used for abortion in most cases. Regardless, Democrats have vowed to block any Zika funding that includes such restrictions. Seems pretty short-sighted on all fronts...
- Part of that funding package would include monies to use genetically modified males mosquitoes to breed with, and shorten the lifespan for any offspring of, Zika carrying female Aedes individuals. Although the strategy has been successful elsewhere, and despite FDA approval, some residents of southern Florida, where Zika cases have now been reported, have been resistant to the the program.
- There is also a socio-economic dimension to this issue. While the best way to avoid the virus is to stay inside, this is easier said than done for poorer people living in humid tropical environments without air conditioning.