A deadly Zika virus outbreak began in Brazil last year. Thousands of babies are growing up with birth defects resulting from their mothers’ exposure to Zika while pregnant. And hundreds of thousands of pregnant women throughout Latin America fear they may be infected.
The World Health Organization is expected to declare Zika an international health emergency this week.
Here’s a sign that authorities in Latin America and around the world have learned something from this devastating outbreak: They’ve pushed through a single-dose vaccine, approved by the European Food Safety Authority, against the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention worked with pharma companies to develop the vaccine. As CNN reports, the results of a pair of studies released earlier this year were promising. In conjunction with a Brazilian vaccine company, the CDC tested the virus in primates. Seventy percent of the animals, infected via a nasal spray, survived. In a third batch of monkeys, 96 percent survived.
There’s a catch.
Once a wild-West African strain of Zika was discovered, scientists feared there was a chance the virus could spread from humans to apes. Zoonotic (transmission from one species to another) transmission wouldn’t have been good for humans, either. The European vaccine appears to be effective in monkeys, but it hasn’t been shown to be good against other primates, such as rhesus macaques. The Associated Press reported in April that the vaccine’s efficacy against rhesus macaques remained low.
Still, by restricting access to mosquitoes that transmit the virus, the CDC and European scientists are hopeful that they can eventually lower the numbers of infected individuals. That, hopefully, would cut down on risk of human transmissions from returning travelers and infected pregnant women. The European vaccine isn’t necessarily for pregnant women, because the CDC says females who may have been infected need not seek it out themselves. You won’t have to take the spray — it will be available for new and elderly mothers and babies.
In the meantime, people in affected countries should continue to take common-sense precautions such as thoroughly washing hands and staying away from areas where mosquitoes are known to breed. But they should also be wary of over-vaccinating.
Concerns about Zika have risen since the illness was linked to dozens of cases of the Zika virus in Brazil. The World Health Organization’s advisory committee is scheduled to meet to announce its decisions on declaring an international health emergency on Tuesday. The Bloomberg’s article on the vaccine highlights the importance of “stopping people from falling in love with vaccine campaigns,” since a single shot can’t completely eliminate the risks.
As rates of chronic disease continue to rise in the United States, it’s imperative that we inoculate ourselves against a pandemic. But the reality is we’re in the early stages of understanding how to stop a pandemic, and we’ve invested far too little in doing so. That’s not to say the CDC should make it too easy to get a shot of this particular vaccine, but we’re in the fifth year of fighting a terrible flu season, and that’s likely to be the first flu vaccine we’ll actually have to fight. And we’re far from being ready for the coming cholera epidemic in Haiti, which will likely kill a lot of people over the next couple of years.
The FDA advises against taking prophylactics for Zika, but perhaps, for practical reasons, pregnant women should also limit exposure to the Zika virus until an effective vaccine is available. At a minimum, as a woman does at any age, she should ensure she has had a safe sex relationship. (And condom use is often overlooked during early stages of the illness.)
It’s also important to remain vigilant for Zika symptoms. Infection by Zika requires going outside for more than an hour to notice it. Its symptoms are similar to those of common colds, but the virus can trigger a rare syndrome with worsening neurological problems and head deformities. Until it can be proven that Zika is only transmitted by sex and mosquito bites, there’s really no way to know how many people have been infected — and I’m certainly not counting the ones who could have been because they don’t seek out health care.