The World Health Organization officially considers the Zika viral outbreak, which is currently plaguing the Americas, to be a global emergency. Today's announcement followed an extraordinary meeting to assess the extent of the infection. Labeling the virus an international health emergency improves the chances of getting it under control, thanks to an anticipated influx of personnel, resources and expertise spurred by the WHO designation. The emergency decision could even accelerate efforts to develop a vaccine, though this will not happen immediately. The virus is spreading rapidly through South and Central America and could lead to 4 million new cases this year. At least 20 territories, including Panama, Guatemala, Barbados and Puerto Rico, have registered local transmission of the virus. The disease, which is spread by the Aedes mosquito, produces no symptoms in the majority of cases and only mild symptoms in others. However, Zika has been associated with serious birth defects.
When considering the effect of disease on a geopolitical level it is important to consider not only the potential for a global epidemic but the possible economic effects as well. Containing and managing an outbreak is expensive, as is dealing with large numbers of dead and infected. This can lead to severe disruptions in trade, accompanied by enhanced screening measures to prevent the transmission of the virus across borders. Developing treatment, cures and vaccines requires huge investment, as seen in the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa. And then there is the loss of productivity resulting not only from sickness but those refusing to work and those taking time off to care for the infected. If the disease is neither deadly nor debilitating, however, the loss of economic productivity from death or incapacitation is low. But there are other things to consider.
Concerns about severe birth defects associated with the Zika virus are not only understandable, but also are aggravated by the difficulty in detecting infection. Several studies are underway to conclusively prove the link between Zika and microcephaly, a congenital disorder associated with small infant head size and neurological impairment. Studies in Brazil have already shown a strong correlation. There is also evidence linking Zika to autoimmune disorders such as Guillain-Barre syndrome, but more findings will likely emerge over the coming months. It is also important to remember that this is not a new virus. The name "Zika" refers to a forest just outside Uganda's capital, Kampala, where the virus was discovered. It has since been identified in other parts of Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands. The spread of Zika is similar to that of the chikungunya virus: Once it is exposed to a dense population, aided by the right factors and conditions, it spreads very rapidly.
Zika is also not the first virus to raise concerns about its effect on unborn children. There is already a historical precedent for vaccine development for such a disease: rubella. A vaccine for the underlying virus was developed less than a decade after rubella was first isolated. Given the furor surrounding Zika, the proximity to North America and the WHO announcement, vaccine programs will likely be accelerated. Even so, there is little chance of a vaccine being successfully fielded anytime soon. Until then, preventative measures such as spraying pesticides and limiting standing water will be the only tools to limit the disease vectors' breeding grounds.
Personal protective measures include well-screened houses, mosquito nets, long-sleeved clothing and liberal amounts of bug spray. For many living in the tropics, though, these precautions are simply a fact of life. Unfortunately, adequate protective measures are not always available, especially in poorer communities. Zika is not the only mosquito-borne disease that is endemic to the Americas; dengue, chikungunya, West Nile and malaria have all taken hold. Without mass eradication efforts — similar to those carried out in the mid-20th century — it is likely that several mosquito-borne diseases will remain endemic to Latin America. The difficulty in controlling these other diseases is a strong indicator that controlling Zika will be equally difficult. There are significant costs associated with constantly combating and treating mosquito-borne diseases, costs that are hard for cash-strapped countries to shoulder. In fact, the prevalence of such diseases in the tropics has historically hindered the economical emergence of countries in that climate range.
Yet, the biggest geopolitical effect of this outbreak may not be seen until 18 years or more after the current outbreak. Fear of Zika and microcephaly has the potential to lead to a decrease in pregnancies in the region, possibly assisted by political initiatives. The governments of El Salvador, Colombia, Jamaica and Honduras are already telling women to delay pregnancy until the virus is under control. Unlike other countries and regions that are expected to face demographic crunches in the next two decades, much of Latin America still has a healthy demographic curve, with a large, young population base. A rapid halt in population growth, caused by something akin to Zika, would threaten the continued productivity associated with sizable Latin American labor pools. This has the potential to hasten regional decline in decades to come.