The Zika virus was first discovered 68 years ago in the Zika forest of Uganda. For years, it existed in the continents of Africa and Asia. More recently, it found its way to South America, thanks to a species of mosquito that flourishes in year-round warm weather. Throughout its existence, the Zika virus has been practically invisible for 2 reasons: 1) Eighty percent of people who catch it never have symptoms. 2) In the minority of people who do show symptoms, it is a mild illness; those who get it might have a fever, rash, or headache.
On February 8, 2016, after the Zika virus had begun making sudden headlines in Brazil, PBS science correspondent Miles O'Brien said: “Over the years, no one paid a lot of attention to Zika because the symptoms are generally mild. In fact, four out of five never know they have it. No one is sure why it took such a vicious turn.” What “vicious turn” was he referring to? Recently, the Zika virus has been suspected – but not proven – of being behind the rising incidence of microcephaly in Brazilian babies. (Microcephaly is a term used to describe a condition where a baby is born with an unnaturally small head and diminished brain.)
Is Zika causing microcephaly? Brazil's health minister, Marcello Castro, has claimed that he has “100 percent certainty” that a link exists between Zika and microcephaly. He seems very eager to make this statement, even though the Zika virus has never been proven to cause anything other than mild illness. Many Brazilians disagree with Castro. They say that the problem of microcephaly has existed in Brazil long before the Zika virus was around (Zika is believed to have entered Brazil in late 2014).
The University of Rochester Medical Center's website says, “Microcephaly is either caused by exposure to harmful substances during the fetal development, or it may be associated with genetic problems or syndromes that may have a tendency to run in families.” It goes on to list specific causes, including “exposure to hazardous chemicals or substances, mercury poisoning, drug and alcohol consumption, lack of proper nutrients in diet, and intrauterine (while the baby is in the womb) infection with rubella and varicella virus.”
Currently, Zika is guilty until proven innocent. President Obama asked Congress for $1.8 billion to combat Zika in Brazil. People are being cautioned to change their travel plans, even as Brazil tries to woo them in light of the Summer Olympics it will be hosting this year. In El Salvador, public health officials have even advised women to delay pregnancy for the next couple years! But don't worry; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reassured Americans that Zika won't be a big deal in the U.S. Does the CDC know something that we don't?
It's true that Brazil is now seeing more cases of microcephaly than it used to, but of the recent cases suspected of having the condition, several hundred were checked so far and nearly two thirds (over 400) of those babies were found to not be microcephalic after all. Perhaps before anyone gets carried away by overblown reports, we should remember these words from Franklin D. Roosevelt's inaugural address: "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror..." enough said.