Zika virus is contracted through the bite of an infected mosquito and it is spreading at an alarming rate throughout the Americas. In fact the World Health Organization (WHO) is considering declaring Zika virus a public health emergency. Some virologists are comparing the spread of Zika virus with the rubella epidemic from the 1960’s that resulted in thousands of babies born in the U.S. with severe disabilities. The resemblance between rubella and Zika is striking, especially with the absence of a vaccine or treatment plan for those infected with the virus. Public health officials in at least 25 countries are working hard to slow the speed of the Zika virus which has been linked to microcephaly, a birth defect that causes babies to be born with unusually small craniums and brains. Some researchers also believe that the virus is linked to a neurological condition called Guillan-Barre syndrome, which can cause paralysis.
During the 1960’s pregnant women contracting rubella in the first trimester of pregnancy had an 85% percent chance of developing severe defects of the eyes, ears and heart. In Brazil, an estimated 4,000 babies have been born with microcephaly and research indicates that cases will escalate as more women that were infected with Zika early in their pregnancy begin to give birth. Public health officials in many Latin American countries are advising women to delay getting pregnant if at all possible. One of the lessons learned during the rubella outbreak was the importance of a vaccine to prevent birth defects. Rubella virus is spread from person to person through either a cough or sneeze. Studies show that every infected person could potentially spread the virus from between three to eight other people. Rubella began as an epidemic that spread through Europe in 1963 before subsequently infecting the United States. Just like the Zika virus, Rubella causes mild symptoms; in fact Rubella was once thought to be a minor illness that resulted in a feeling of melancholy along with a mild rash. However, research soon proved that the virus affects the brain, liver, lungs, kidney, bone marrow and bones.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) reports that between the years 1962 to 1965, there were 12.5 million people infected with rubella, which in turn resulted in approximately 85% of women that were of child bearing age being infected with the virus. The earlier in a pregnancy that the virus was contracted, the greater the risk of a child being born with complications. Approximately 20,000 babies were born with birth defects resulting from rubella, including microcephaly. 2,100 newborn babies died. A vaccine was introduced in 1969. The same technology that was used to develop a vaccine in the past is still used today. Researchers take a live virus which is grown repeatedly in cell cultures where it is weakened to reduce its virulence. By 1971, the rubella vaccine was combined with vaccines for mumps and measles in what became known as the MMR vaccine which is still used today. In the late 1998 a now discredited entry in a medical journal attempted to theorize a link with the MMR vaccine and autism but scientists have shown that the benefits of vaccinations far outweigh the risks.
A Texas nonprofit group called the Immunization Partnership has suggested that the anti-vaccine movement has because so popular because we haven’t seen diseases like rubella for years. Often the public doesn’t understand just how dangerous the health risks of these diseases can be. Zika may be the virus that changes this concept, especially if the virus continues to spread. Evidence confirms that infection during early pregnancy leads to defects and other developmental issues. The U.S government along with several other pharmaceutical companies are working on a possible Zika vaccine. Once a vaccine is developed, public health officials will vaccinate as many people as possible to protect them from the Zika virus, starting with women of reproductive age because they are at the highest risk. Researchers have recently confirmed a case of Zika that was spread through sexual intercourse making it necessary to vaccinate everyone to truly get an effective hold on the virus. Texas Heritage Protection will continue to monitor Zika virus and continue to increase public awareness.