Zika Virus patient

Some Perspective On The Zika Virus From Uganda

Zika virus has become a term of terror for many pregnant women around the world but especially for those living in and around Brazil.

The emersion of any virus, which has significant impact on human life, causes great anxiety for many—but especially for pregnant mothers since the potential to cause fetal abnormalities is significant. This virus seems to target the nervous system and thus its impact is devastating if infection occurs early in the development of the fetus.

In addition to the physical abnormalities caused by viruses, these little microscopic organisms produce a lot of anxiety for their very small weight! I had my second born when the fatal SARS virus was wreaking havoc in the Toronto area. I delivered in Hamilton (about one hour away) and there was concern that I wouldn’t even be allowed to have my husband there for the delivery. SARS or no SARS, I wanted to be able to squeeze his hand!

In medical school, doctors learn the infectious causes of birth defects by memorizing the ‘TORCH’ infections (toxoplasmosis (a parasite), rubella, cytomegalovirus and herpes—the last three out of four organisms being viruses). So it is not new news that viruses cause birth defects.

In many countries, women are immunized before pregnancy against rubella—but my parents’ generation remembers well the tragedy of children born with congenital rubella—also a devastating infection that causes deafness, blindness and microcephaly (small head). Vaccinations have been very successful in reducing this occurrence.

It will take time for a vaccine to be developed against Zika and for the potential exposure to be minimized (by reducing mosquito infestations as we do here in Uganda, for example, where malaria remains a much bigger concern both for the miscarriages and stillbirths it causes). The Centre for Disease Control estimates that in 2012, 627,000 people died of malaria while 207 million had a clinical infection. Those kinds of numbers help to bring perspective on the current situation with Zika as compared to other mosquito borne illnesses. Of course, if you or your sister is the one pregnant woman who is infected with Zika, all the statistics in the world won’t console your anxiety.

But there is hope on the horizon. Other harmful viruses have been reduced globally through the discovery and production of vaccines. With the similarity of Zika to yellow fever, one can hope that the discovery may be a bit easier (though not guaranteed!) The organization ‘GAVI’ is doing a great job of coordinating vaccine development and production to tackle some of the world’s greatest infectious killers.

Zika was originally discovered here in Uganda. But today, as locals on the ground, it’s not on our radar. Until recently, scientists in the Uganda Virus Research Institute may have had an interest in Zika, but not the rest of us. (When a group of Associated Press journalists went trekking through the Zika forest with a Ugandan guide, the forest ranger explained that people used to ask about the unique animals in the forest like leopards and pythons; now, they ask about the mosquito.) No doubt the perspective of foreigners on these kinds of issues is confusing to him. Perhaps he thinks such visitors are missing the forest for the trees.

For a helpful article on the Zika virus, see this one from the Huffington Post.

As for me, here in Uganda, I’ll keep putting on my bug repellent, keeping the screens in place, and ensuring that my pregnant friends sleep under mosquito nets!

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