Zika Virus and Other Mosquito-Borne Virus: The Failure of Modern Healthcare
Alexandre A. Martins
There is an alarm that the world is close to a global pandemic caused by the spread across the borders of Zika virus. This virus is a mosquito-borne virus of the flavivirus genre that is transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes, the same mosquitoes that also transmit dengue fever, chikungunya, and yellow fever. This mosquito and all these diseases are long known, especially by people from low-income countries that have suffered because of them for decades. Excepting yellow fever, none of them have a vaccine to prevent its infections by mosquito bites. There is also lack of specific medication to treat them and scream for quickly diagnostics. Therefore, when someone is infected by any of this flavivirus, regimes of treatment are established in order to relieve the symptoms, sometimes based only in the apparent symptoms without a precise diagnosis.
Some Latin American countries have suffered outbreaks of Zika virus infection. The most significant outbreak has occurred in Brazil. There is also a struggle to combat epidemics of dengue. This occurs annually, especially during the rainy season (between December and March). The appearance of Zika virus in Brazil is recent. The first cases occurred at the beginning of 2014. However, this virus is not new. According to the World Health Organization, Zika virus was first identified in 1947 in Uganda, being the first identification in humans in Uganda and Tanzania in 1952. Outbreaks of Zika infection have been recorded in Africa, Asia and now in the Americas.
What is now new about Zika virus is the possible link between Zika infection of pregnant women and the increase in babies born of microcephaly in Brazil. According to a report of the Brazilian Ministry of Health issued in January 23, 2016, 4,180 cases have been reported as suspects of microcephaly (compared with the last year that had less then 200 cases). So far, among this immense increase of possible microcephaly, 270 have already been confirmed, being 06 directly related to Zika virus. 462 have been identified with non-microcephaly, and the others 3,448 are still being investigated and do not have a final diagnosis. Based on these numbers, we can see that the link between Zika virus and microcephaly is small, but it is real and not only a remote hypothesis. In addition, scientists of Carlos Chagas Institute of Fiocruz (a Brazilian center specialized in public health and research on infectious diseases) announced they have found genetic material of Zika virus in the placenta of a pregnant woman who had a miscarriage. They studied this material and concluded that Zika virus can be transmitted to the fetus through the placenta, but this is not enough to affirm that this is the reason of the microcephaly. More studies are needed.
In January 27, 2016, representatives of the governments of Brazil and the USA gathered in a WHO meeting in Geneva, announced a partnership to develop a vaccine to prevent Zika virus infection. The leader of the Brazilian delegation dreams that a vaccine can be developed in three years, a record time because this kind of research takes an average of ten years. Hopefully, we will get this vaccine in three years and perhaps also vaccines for dengue and chikungunya.
Here is the main point of this reflection. These studies should have started many years earlier. These flavivirus have been claiming victims for many decades. Why has a big center of research, or a pharmacological company, or even a government of a rich country never been interested in finding vaccines to prevent people from being infected by flavivirus? The answer is not complicated. It is because their victims are from low-income countries. The victims are the poor who live in areas of more vulnerability to be infected. These people do not have money to buy medication, so why would a pharmacological group invest in research when the final product will not have people with money to buy it?
Zika virus is an epidemic that shows once again that healthcare cannot be a commodity guided by market forces. Now there is the announcement of research to seriously address flavivirus, but it will be done with public money from taxpayers. Hopefully, this will be a serious effort to have a vaccine available as soon as possible. Healthcare is a human right. This principle must guide all actions to deliver healthcare around the world and research to make medications, medical technology, structures, and health professionals available in those areas that are marked by poverty and high vulnerability of getting ill. Diseases such as zika, dengue, and chikungunya, prove that such “modern healthcare” as commodification of care and medical research fail by treating human beings as consumers and denying the dignity of certain humans, especially of the poor.