As of June 30, seven US babies had been born with the neurological birth defect linked to the Zika virus, a mosquito-born pathogen that led to widespread panic after sweeping through Central and South America. While no locally-acquired cases have yet been identified in the continental United States, the US Centers for Disease Control says 1,305 infections in American patients can be attributed to travel abroad. In US territories, like Puerto Rico and American Samoa, a total of 2,916 cases of Zika have been reported.
Columbia’s Experience Could Help US Tackle Zika Virus
Several weeks ago, a child was born in Texas with microcephaly, a congenital condition marked by inhibited brain development. After testing, state health officials determined that the baby was infected with the Zika virus, according to the Star-Telegram. The child’s mother had been traveling in Colombia, a country that has experienced the second-highest number of infections.
Thankfully, Columbia’s Zika outbreak seems to be on the decline. While nearly 72,000 people in the country have been infected, almost 20% of whom have been pregnant women, collaboration with the US CDC have introduced new testing and surveillance techniques that appear to be working. Cases of microcephaly, however, are expected to rise, since many of the women who were infected during pregnancy will come to term in the months ahead.
Is Zika An “Opportunity” For Birth Defect Researchers?
In the US, some researchers are actually calling the Zika virus an “opportunity.”
In a recent interview with the journal Nature, vaccine scientist Stanley Plotkin said, “birth defects are not high on the public-health agenda.” Zika, though, is a high priority – and not least because it can cause congenital abnormalities. President Obama has asked for around $1.9 billion in funding to fight the virus in America and, while it’s unlikely Congress will ratify his request in full, the final number will certainly be higher than the $1.3 million allocated to birth defect research in 2015.
Plotkin’s hope is that the justified, reasonable scare over Zika will help raise awareness around, and funding for, birth defects caused by other factors. Considering that birth defects are the leading cause of infant mortality, we hope he’s right.