The Zika Virus: What’s All The Commotion About?

By Hannah Bloom

The Zika Virus. What is it exactly? With frightening television news reports and alarming newspaper articles seeming to emerge every day, just how much do you actually know about the Zika Virus? Media reports have not been shy to alert the public of the current epidemic that is sweeping Brazil and has since then, more recently, hit the US. How much do you really know though aside from that the virus is apparently bad and that it is spreading? For instance, what is the Zika Virus exactly? Where did it come from? What does having the virus entail? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the Zika Virus is not just some new virus that has suddenly emerged in the last few years.[1] In fact, it has been around for decades.[2]

The Zika virus belongs to the virus family called Flaviviridae and is of the Flavivirus genus.[3] Zika is related to several other viruses like West Nile, dengue, Japanese encephalitis, and yellow fever.[4] Typically, the illness is very mild and some people do not even have symptoms.[5] The most common symptoms, however, include: fever, rash, red eyes, headache, muscle aches, and joint pain.[6] These symptoms can last up to a week and there is no medicine or vaccine for the illness as of now.[7] In terms of transmission, the Zika virus is spread primarily by an infected mosquito biting a person.[8] In addition, a woman who is pregnant can pass the virus to her fetus and a person who has Zika already can pass it along to his/her sex partners.[9]

While these symptoms may not seem so bad, it is particularly dangerous to contract the virus while pregnant because it can cause very serious birth defects, like microcephaly.[10] Microcephaly “is a birth defect where a baby’s head is smaller than expected when compared to babies of the same sex and age.”[11] This means that the baby’s brain “might not have developed properly.”[12]

Scientists first identified the virus in a rhesus monkey located in the Zika Forest of Uganda in 1947.[13] Then in 1952, the first human cases of Zika were detected in Uganda and also the United Republic of Tanzania.[14] Throughout the 1960s-1980s, blood tests confirmed that the virus was spreading and the disease was tracked, moving from Uganda to Western Africa and into Asia; there were no deaths or hospitalizations reported. [15]

Then in 2007 the first large Zika outbreak in humans occurred in a Pacific Island, called Yap which is located in the Federated States of Micronesia.[16] Prior to this, although the virus had been spreading, there were only 14 cases of human Zika virus documented in the world.[17] The Yap outbreak infected 73% of residents.[18] In 2013-2014, there were 4 other outbreaks in the Pacific islands of New Caledonia, Easter Island, French Polynesia, and the Cook Islands.[19] Perhaps what brought the virus to our attention here in the US was the massive outbreak that occurred, and is still ongoing, in Brazil in 2015.[20]

Brazil is facing a massive epidemic as a result of the Zika virus.[21] The country usually has 150 cases of children born with microcephaly in a typical year.[22]  Since the outbreak began in 2015, to date there have been 863 “babies born with the characteristic abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains.”[23] According to the WHO, if current trends continue as a result of the Zika outbreak, Brazil is expected to have over 2,500 babies born with microcephaly.[24] One Brazilian psychologist, Vera Lucia Giacometti, has been working at a state facility for the last 16 years which cares for children and young adults with severe disabilities.[25] According to Giacometti, since there is little state support and Brazil does not have the capacity to deal with the outbreak, it is likely that many of these Zika born babies will be abandoned and put into state care in the future.[26]

The WHO Director-General Margaret Chan commented that in less than one year, "‘the status of Zika has changed from a mild medical curiosity to a disease with severe public health implications.’"[27] The possible link between a mosquito bite and severe fetal abnormalities frightened the public and amazed scientists, according to Chan.[28]

So what is Brazil doing in response to the Zika epidemic? Brazil, surprisingly, is attempting to make its abortion laws stricter.[29] Under their current law, almost all abortions are illegal and they are punishable by up to three years in jail.[30] The punishment for a third party that performs the actual abortion is one to four years of imprisonment; the incarceration time can increase if the woman is injured or dies.[31] Exceptions to this law that make abortion legal include when a woman’s life is at risk, if she was raped, or if the fetus has anencephaly.[32]

However, a recent bill, introduced by Anderson Ferreira, would increase the current maximum penalties for the mother from three years in jail to four-and-a-half years.[33] In addition, it would raise the maximum penalty for the person performing the abortion from four years to six.[34]

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[1] See World Health Organization, The History of Zika Virus, who.int/en/, http://www.who.int/emergencies/zika-virus/history/en/ (last visited Aug. 21, 2016).

[2] Id.

[3] Robert W. Malone et al., Zika Virus: Medical Countermeasure Development Challenges, PLOS, Mar. 2, 2016.

[4] Oumar Faye et al., Molecular Evolution of Zika Virus During Its Emergence in the 20th Century, PLOS, Jan. 9, 2014.

[5] Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, Zika Virus, CDC.gov, http://www.cdc.gov/zika/symptoms/symptoms.html (last visited Aug. 21, 2016).

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, Zika Virus, CDC.gov, http://www.cdc.gov/zika/about/questions.html (last visited Aug. 21, 2016).

[9] Id.

[10]Id.

[11] Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, Birth Defects, CDC.gov,  http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/birthdefects/microcephaly.html (last visited Aug. 21, 2016).

[12] Id.

[13] World Health Organization, supra note 1.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] See id.

[21] See Lena H. Sun, Zika: More Than 2,500 Babies Born with Microcephaly in Brazil, WHO Predicts, The Washington Post, Mar. 22, 2016.

[22] Lulu Garcia-Navarro, Moms And Infants Are Abandoned In Brazil Amid Surge In Microcephaly, NPR.Org (Feb. 18, 2016), http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/02/18/467056166/moms-and-infants-are-abandoned-in-brazil-amid-surge-in-microcephaly.

[23] Sun, supra note 21.

[24] Id.

[25] Garcia-Navarro, supra note 22.

[26] Id.

[27] Sun, supra note 21.

[28] Id.

[29] See Ferreira’s bill

[30] Brazilian Criminal Code, article 124.

[31] Brazilian Criminal Code, article 125 and 127.

[32] Brazilian Criminal Code, article 128.

[33] Ferreira’s bill, supra note 29.

[34] Id.