SPECULATION is rife that China and Eastern Europe will be hit by an increasingly virulent strain of Zika, which affects unborn children. The World Health Organisation says the virus has infected a million people worldwide since being first reported in Brazil four years ago. But the WHO notes that for most cases, Zika affects only the brain of an unborn child. When the Chinese health minister, Chen Zhu, recently announced a large number of cases, it prompted no demands for action. “As long as they’re only affecting pregnant women, it’s not really a concern,” he said.
The fall in American birth rates, which were already falling before Donald Trump’s election, has remained steady. It has not hurt Latin America, the region most prone to it. Zika is carried by mosquitoes, which do not usually bite in southern Europe. But it has spread across the continent to other species of mosquito, which are spread more widely. The Zika virus makes infected pregnant women’s babies under five years old have unusually small heads, causing developmental problems. Researchers say they are heartened that cases are still falling as the expected peak in infections nears.
The virus is on the rise in Europe. Public health experts say it is striking mostly in eastern European countries where it has already proven its ability to infect many children. They say it should worry the continent as a whole since it has less history of fighting other insects carrying other diseases, such as dengue. They say there is no reason to believe it will not infect more women of childbearing age. The WHO describes “a new outbreak” of Zika within a phenomenon where it calls for “layers of vigilance and action”.
Tackling the virus requires three main components. First, people must ensure that they do not introduce it to other people when caring for their children. Second, they must destroy the mosquitoes that carry the virus, which are prone to bite other mosquitoes. Third, they need to detect the virus early in its life cycle. Zika cases occurred in the Netherlands only when, more than a year after a woman with symptoms was examined, she was finally identified after she arrived in Australia. Among other places, France has called for more surveillance.
The experience of China, and to a degree Russia, suggests there is only so much authorities can do to avert a disaster. The virus was first identified in 1918. That same year men in the newly established communist country began becoming infected with meningitis. In 1990, a new strain of the disease was found among soldiers stationed in China. Both Beijing and Moscow’s health departments failed to take measures against Zika, for example by providing chlorine to remove mosquito breeding grounds. It is often said that officials have no desire to see infections spread more quickly. A Moscow military hospital even allowed women to be infected with the virus after consulting them, even though they had not been menstruating.
The problem with developing systems for managing tropical diseases is that countries are often incurious about them. Experts argue that surveillance is the key to this problem. A recent report by the World Bank claims that 80% of states have inadequate training and resources for fighting such diseases. Russia has had trouble documenting outbreaks: in the summer of 2015, a Russian scientist found five cases of Zika in pregnant women, but only one was confirmed.
If Russia and China were unable to catch the Zika virus, it is unlikely that their systems would detect it. CDC scientists have been unable to identify the virus in the bloodstreams of infected people, only by its signature protein. The disease does not cause encephalitis in a mosquito. It can reproduce in guinea pigs and wild animals that cannot bite people. To combat it, scientists are developing vaccines that need to be developed by international and national agencies.
If efforts to combat Zika fail, they would cost governments hundreds of millions of dollars, which is why hopes for a European-wide immunisation programme are so high.