CDC officials have announced definitive findings that the Zika virus causes microcephaly (unusually small heads) and brain damage in the newborn babies of infected mothers. The New York Times reports:
“There is no longer any doubt that Zika causes microcephaly,” said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the C.D.C. director. He said the conclusion, reached after evaluating “mounting evidence from many studies,” signifies “an unprecedented association” in medicine.
“Never before in history has there been a situation where a bite from a mosquito can result in a devastating malformation,” Dr. Frieden said.
[…]Not only can Zika cause the condition, Dr. Rasmussen said, but it appears to cause more severe forms of it. Microcephaly caused by the Zika virus resembles a particularly destructive type called “fetal brain disruption sequence,” which includes serious problems with swallowing and bending joints. “Even just the measurements of the babies’ heads are much smaller” than in other types of microcephaly, she said.
Beyond microcephaly, Dr. Rasmussen said, the authors concluded that Zika causes some other fetal brain problems, such as calcifications inside the skull. But much remains unknown, including whether Zika harms other organs, how likely it is that women infected with Zika will have brain-damaged babies, and to what extent the risk varies according to when inpregnancy the infection occurs.
Dr. Rasmussen said other brain defects may also be linked to Zika infection. “We do expect that this is likely to be the tip of the iceberg,” she said, “that there will be babies who won’t have the small head per se, but will have other types of brain defects.”
The WHO has also said that there is evidence that Zika causes other complications, such as Guillain-Barre syndrome, that the CDC has not yet been able to confirm.
Zika continues to evolve into an ever-scarier health threat—and that’s not just bad news for locals in the Caribbean and Central America who might be exposed to the disease. It’s bad for all the countries that depend on winter tourism. We’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again: the Caribbean is not in good shape. Venezuela continues to move toward chaos and civil conflict; drug smuggling remains so dominant that many economies are being bought up by drug lords; the opening of Cuba, while good for that island, will provide competition to many other tourist islands with few other revenue options; and now this.
For Americans this means more migration, including illegals and unescorted children, and possibly a less safe neighborhood. And American citizens in Southern states are also at risk directly from infection. Fighting Zika therefore should be a priority.
While we’re not doctors or scientists, as a political, public health, and foreign policy matter, the broad priorities would seem to be, firstly, to find a way to kill the mosquitoes that carry the disease, even if that means taking another look at banned pesticides. At the same time, we need to be developing tests and treatments for the disease on a crash basis. Then, there’s hunt for the long term solution—a vaccine.
Fortunately, this sort of research and mobilization has been a longstanding strength of the United States government. We should make the most of our institutional capacities now, and act quickly.