By Jean Daudelin
Three recent developments are changing the Zika crisis: global media awareness, new possible vectors, and doubts — at the epicentre of the crisis — about Brazil’s capacity and honesty. Together, they threaten the upcoming Rio Olympics.
At the end of November 2015, I peddled a piece about the Zika/microcephaly crisis that was already severe in Recife, the large Northeastern Brazilian city where I am currently working. No one but this site, OpenCanada.org, would have it: not The Globe and Mail, not The Huffington Post, not Foreign Policy, no one else. Worse still, it took a few more weeks for the global media to catch up: The New York Times, measure of “all things fit to print,” published its first piece on Dec. 29.
Today, Zika is front-page news every day the world over. This is mostly good as it keeps prodding governments and the increasingly nimble global infectious disease community. As usual, the danger is that, were the epidemic to be less serious than currently speculated, the overblown coverage could lead to public cynicism and, subsequently, less urgency from politicians, less money for research, and public nonchalance when a truly severe one hits: call this the “swine flu” scenario. Fortunately, public health organizations and experts have become very adept at balancing warnings with caveats. In the face of global infectious diseases, panic is not the default mode any more.
The second development is only bad, as researchers — still tentatively — point to new vectors for the disease. Until now, the Aedes family of mosquitos (aegypti and albopictus) were considered the only culprits, which is scary enough given the global distribution of those bugs. Now, however, there is a growing worry that their Culex cousins, who reach farther north and south, could also be infected and in turn infect the people they bite. Culex is the family of your “friendly” spring and summer mosquito, but also of the West Nile virus vector. In addition to expanding the potential range of the infection, this would imply a significant increase in vulnerability as, unlike Aedes aegypti, which is still the main apparent culprit for Zika, many Culex mosquitoes are active in the evening and at night. Perhaps most worrying, there is growing evidence that Zika could be sexually transmitted, thus turning your sexual partners, just back from a trip in the south, into a potential vectors even in the middle of winter, and we don’t know yet for how long.
There is no real flip side to the third development either, with growing doubts about Brazil’s capacity to deal with the crisis and, most worryingly, to honestly tell the world how bad things are. In the last week or so, both Brazil’s health minister and President Dilma Rousseff have said that the battle against the mosquito was being lost. Rousseff’s declaration was framed as a call to arms, but without a single piece of good news on the eradication front. With Brazilian microcephaly statistics showing growth rates of five to seven percent per week in suspected cases, one is compelled to take her statement literally.
Worse still, the states of São Paulo and Rio, which are crucial to the national effort, appear to be less than candid about the local scale of the problem. El País revealed recently that the government of São Paulo had lied about the number of microcephaly cases on its territory, not reporting 200 cases and thus conveying the impression that the epidemic was largely confined to the poor Northeast of the country. The fact that Rio is currently refusing to test Olympic waterways for viral infection, while not directly Zika-related, nonetheless conveys a worrying lack of transparency about health risks.
Behind Rio’s reluctance, obviously, lies the nightmarish scenario of an Olympic Games participation disaster or of an unprecedented cancellation of the event. Brazil is clearly lobbying hard to save the Games, but its very efforts reinforce global skepticism. As reported by The New York Times, when the WHO declared Zika a global health emergency on Feb. 1 but refused to follow the U.S. Centre for Disease Control and recommend that pregnant women avoid countries where Zika is endemic, “some global health experts contended the W.H.O.’s decision was more about politics than medicine.”
In the end, full transparency or deceptive manoeuvring of that sort may not matter much. Given the massive press coverage Zika currently receives, the tremendous platform the Olympics would provide for the diffusion of the virus, and the increasingly clear inability of Brazilian authorities to get a grip on the epidemic, many countries may follow New Zealand’s lead and, at the very least, support those athletes who decide to stay home. Now, this only makes things worse: a public relations disaster for Brazil, it will increasingly suck up government attention and efforts. All-out cancellation would probably be better: with Olympic distraction out of the picture, all energies could focus on the mundane jobs of eradication, vaccine development, and care for the poor kids who end up crippled by the disease.