As viruses go, Zika has been having a pretty good year. In addition to spreading internationally and causing a furor and panic over being a potential bringer of birth defects, Zika may also be killing people.
Three people in Venezuela have been reported killed by complications stemming from the virus and Brazil has recently identified Zika infections in another three individuals who died in 2015. In both instances, the virus has not been definitively linked to the deaths but the possibility has put health officials even more on edge than they were previously.
The World Health Organization, for its part, is awaiting more information on the cases.
The current theory is that the deaths were the result of Guillain-Barre syndrome, a form of autoimmune disease. In patients with GBS, the immune system attacks the body’s own nerve cells. This results in muscle weakness and paralysis which can sometimes become life-threatening as the damage begins to compromise a person’s ability to breathe. Most people with GBS fully recover but permanent damage can occur and about five percent of cases are fatal. It is not currently known what specifically causes GBS but it is suspected to be a complication triggered by certain viral or bacterial infections.
There have been 319 confirmed cases of the Zika virus in Venezuela and the Brazilian government believes up to 1.5 million of its citizens may be infected. Testing has found Zika infections among the six dead, but whether they died from the virus or merely died with it remains determined.
The Zika virus does not currently have a vaccine, though one is expected to be developed within the next year. Properly testing and then administering the vaccine will take longer and is projected to be up to three years away. One of the issues surrounding the vaccine’s development is that, due to Zika’s suspected link to microcephaly, any treatment will need to protect an unborn child as well as the mother. This raises testing difficulties since there are obvious ethical problems surrounding experimentation on pregnant women.
Another obstacle is the relative lack of knowledge surrounding the virus. Unlike Ebola or dengue, which have had decades of writings and scientific investigation on their properties, little attention was paid to Zika until recently because it was considered largely benign.
In the meantime, governments of affected countries are stepping up monitoring efforts while trying to eliminate the mosquito responsible for spreading Zika. Efforts are also being made to better distribute tests for the virus, since the current testing approach is costly and has limited availability.
On the plus side, there is no shortage of enthusiasm. At least fifteen drug companies have been identified by the World Health Organization as working on a Zika vaccine.
Source for Today’s Article:
“Guillain-Barré Syndrome Q & A,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention web site, February 8, 2016; http://www.cdc.gov/zika/qa/gbs-qa.html, last accessed February 15, 2016.