Zika hasn’t gone away. It’s not in remission. It hasn’t been defeated. It’s still very much alive and well, and in many cases, at the forefront of athletes’ minds, particularly those heading for the Olympics this summer.
But why hasn’t the public heard much? The news was alive with reports in early 2016, but since then, coverage has tapered off – but perhaps only because there has been so much else going on. Meldonium, state elections, baseball season, the impeachment of the Brazilian president – you name it, there have been plenty of distractions.
Zika, unfortunately, is alive and well, and in many cases, the lack of coverage can be attributed to a lack of consistency among data reporting methods. According to an article in Travel Weekly, part of the problem is that while the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) can command statistics for the United States and its territories, other countries have to self-report.
The article notes, “to date, Zika virus transmission has been reported in 43 countries and territories in the Caribbean, Central and South America, in the Pacific Islands, Cape Verde and Mexico. But travelers trying to gauge their risk of contracting Zika in any of these destinations based on the number of cases in each country or territory will find that the information available is in most circumstances not complete nor very reliable. The World Health Organization and its health agency for the Americas, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), keep track of suspected and confirmed Zika cases throughout the Americas.
However, each country self-reports its own data, resulting in wildly disparate numbers that are basically not comparable. For example, as of April 21, Honduras reported that it had more than 18,000 suspected cases of Zika, with only two confirmed cases, while in nearby Mexico, there are no suspected cases and 239 confirmed ones. “
Zika has also presented researchers with the classic example of a moving target. Many cases are asymptomatic and are never diagnosed. Others have symptoms that could be dismissed as a mild cold, flu or even allergies – none of which would be unusual in a traveler returning from a vacation. Pregnant women have the most reason to be concerned about the virus, but here again, a lack of symptoms (or serious symptoms) at the time of having the virus means the full extent of damage may not be known unless a baby is born with visible birth defects. And the fact that the virus is transferrable via a mosquito bite or through sexual contact, is another way it flies under the radar.
Researchers, in other words, have plenty of obstacles.
While a vaccine is reportedly in the works, this is a process rather than an event. Human trials have not been used yet, and even if these are successful, medical science is loathe to rush anything to market, so widespread distribution may be years away, with the year 2018 being tossed around as a ‘soonest possible’ date (and that’s if all goes well.)
“Vaccines are generally not made quickly,” Dr. Barney Graham, deputy director of the National Institutes of Health Vaccine Research Center, told BBC News. We still don't have a vaccine for some viruses that have been around for 70 or 80 years.”
In the meantime, WHO has warned pregnant women to avoid traveling to areas where the virus was prevalent, and noted that all travelers to Rio should take precautions against mosquitoes.
This, of course, has resulted in a flurry of finger-pointing, including announcements from the Rio Convention & Visitors Bureau, that the risk of the virus was overblown. Those risks, CVB director Michael Nagy told a group of travel agents last month during a presentation at the Sheraton Grand Rio Hotel & Resort, were far greater in the northeast and more rural regions of Brazil than in the Olympic host city. He added that the relative novelty of Zika has attracted attention, and he accused media outlets of magnifying the story to generate more viewer and reader interest.
A Travel Weekly article noted that a University of Ottawa professor and public-health specialist published an article in the Harvard Public Health Review calling for international Olympic authorities to either delay or move the games because of Zika, according to the Associated Press. Professor Amir Attaran, in a follow-up interview with the AP, said the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) would be “among the cruelest institutions in the world” for not delaying or moving the Games.