GENETIC ALLIANCE BY CLAIRE MENA AND AVA TODD
In April 2015, a British company named Oxitec began releasing over 100,000 genetically modified mosquitoes weekly in Brazil. These mosquitoes were designed in an effort to reduce infectious disease carrying mosquitos. Months later, a growing number of infants in Brazil were born with a serious birth defect: microcephaly. Various media outlets, officials, and individuals quickly began linking a connection between the two, yet there was a serious problem with this claim: it was false.
During an epidemic, fear and panic often grow with the prevalence of the disease, and misinformation trails alongside it. While the rumors usually begin with a small kernel of truth, the information expands and morphs through the use of convenient scapegoats and prominent people to promote it. Historically, ethnic groups and institutions have been falsely blamed for the outbreak of conditions such as the plague, aids, cholera, and autism. As Dr. Howard Markel from the University of Michigan says, rumors are “the lifeblood of an epidemic.”
Although a growing number of infants were born with microcephaly after the release of genetically modified mosquitoes, this is merely a casual occurrence. The mosquitoes were released over a thousand miles away from the major microcephaly outbreaks and mosquitoes do not typically fly more than a mile during the duration of their life. Additionally, only male mosquitoes, who do not bite or spread disease, were released in the country and were genetically designed to die quickly and thus reduce mosquito related diseases, not increase them. Although there is an increasing amount of evidence that has disproved the connection between GMO mosquitoes and microcephaly, a University of Pennsylvania survey study from the Annenberg Public Policy Center shows that more than a third of respondents believe this to be the true source of the outbreak. This form of misinformation can be dangerous because if people don’t understand the true source, they cannot take the proper precautions.
Now, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has concluded that Zika infection is a cause of microcephaly and is linked to the recent outbreak. While Zika can have serious implications for women who are pregnant or may become pregnant, the contraction of Zika in a person who is not pregnant is usually minor or even asymptomatic. It is not uncommon to contract the virus and recover from it before realizing the virus had passed. For those who do experience symptoms, it typically includes nothing more than a fever, headache, rash, red eyes, and joint and muscle pain; typically limited in duration to a few days to a week. However, despite low risks when not pregnant, there are reasons to take precautions to prevent the contraction of this virus.
The Effects of Zika
Zika presents the biggest threat to pregnant women because of the link to birth defects when the virus is passed from mother to fetus in utero. Dr. Turan Dua, a neurologist from the World Health Organization’s Zika Response Team, describes the long-term effects of Zika on babies and children as an emerging problem. With this condition, the baby is born with an unusually small head (microcephaly) and may experience slow development or underdevelopment of the brain. This often results in seizures, stunted growth, mental retardation, difficulties with coordination, and other neurological problems. Currently, there is no cure or treatment for this condition.
The effects of Zika during pregnancy can span beyond microcephaly. Complications include damage to the back of the eye, limited use of joints and spasticity, or continuous contraction of muscles. It is important to note that an infected baby will not always show symptoms of congenital Zika at birth. Dr. Dua explains that when the public health emergency arose, “some babies were infected that did not have any of the clinical abnormalities at birth, but later on they had clinical abnormalities in the first year.” For this reason, Dr. Dua stresses the importance of having a neurological follow-up for newborns, especially if the mother had exposure to Zika or traveled to affected areas during or within a short time of pregnancy.
Prevention and Treatment
If you and your partner plan to conceive in the near future, it is extremely important to take extra precautions when at risk for contracting Zika. Doctors recommend that if a woman has displayed symptoms of the virus or was potentially exposed to it, she should wait at least eight weeks before trying to conceive. While the virus is typically contracted through the bite from an infected Aedes species mosquito, it can also be passed through sexual transmission and other bodily fluids. Doctors recommend that if the male partner has symptoms or was potentially exposed to the virus, the pair should wait at least six months before conceiving. In the time prior, it is important to use condoms or practice abstinence to not further pass the disease. Therefore, if you are thinking about conceiving in the near future, both you and your partner should take steps to prevent contraction of Zika.
While your child is not at risk of serious defects if they contract Zika after birth, it is still important to take precautionary measures. Children are still at risk for contracting the virus and may experience mild symptoms to more serious flu like symptoms. If traveling to a Zika infected area, you and your family can implement typical steps to prevent mosquito bites by dressing to cover arms and legs, covering cribs and strollers with netting, and applying insect repellant on yourself and babies over two months old. Additionally elimination of stagnant water, such as water sitting in buckets and puddles, can help prevent mosquitoes from residing close to the home. For more information on ways to prevent mosquito bites and the best forms of insect repellent to use for your family, go here: https://www.epa.gov/insect-repellents/find-repellent-right-you
Returning from the trip
After returning from a trip in a Zika infected area, it is important to continue protecting yourself and your little ones from mosquito bites. Even if you are not demonstrating symptoms, continue to take preventative measures to ward off mosquitoes for an additional three weeks. While the mosquitos nearby may not have Zika, it can be spread to them if you previously contracted the virus.
If any symptoms arise, be sure to contact your doctor and tell her about your travel. If you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant and have traveled to a Zika infested area, be sure to follow up with your doctor regardless of whether symptoms have surfaced or not. Zika can be diagnosed with a blood or urine test, but a doctor will most likely first want to know if you have been recently traveling in an infected area.
While there is currently no treatment or vaccine for Zika, it is possible to ease the symptoms by getting plenty of rest, drinking a sufficient amount of fluids, and taking medicine such as acetaminophen. Additionally, if someone around you has contracted the virus, be sure to protect yourself from blood or bodily fluids and to wash hands with soap and water if in close contact.
While it is certain that the genetically modified mosquitoes do not have a connection to Zika and microcephaly, much about the virus is still unknown. Researchers have still not determined the long-term effects the virus can have on infants and children. Dr. Dua and others from WHO have been documenting complications from Zika in infected babies, some of whom are now one year or older. Dr. Dua states that these older babies continue to have a range of problems including microcephaly and other neurological abnormalities. Due to the unknowns about how Zika will continue to affect these children, everyone – not just pregnant women – should aim to protect themselves and their children from contracting the virus.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Claire Mena is Online Engagement and Outreach Assistant and Ava Todd, intern, with Genetic Alliance.
The world’s leading nonprofit health advocacy organization committed to transforming health through genetics
and promoting an environment of openness centered on the health of individuals, families, and communities.