While you may have heard about it only recently, the infamous Zika virus was first discovered back in 1947. Scientists researching yellow fever in Uganda identified the new virus in a rhesus monkey in the Zika forest (hence the name "Zika" virus). The first human case was detected in Nigeria in 1954, followed by decades of relatively rare outbreaks in Africa and Southeast Asia. It wasn’t until 2007 that the first large Zika outbreak took place in the Pacific Island of Yap in Micronesia, which led to over 70 percent of the island residents being infected by the virus. Since then, there have been many outbreaks throughout different parts of the world.
Unlike many diseases which primarily rely on airborne transmission, Zika spreads from person to person via the bite of infected Aedes mosquitoes. Zika has also been shown to transmit through sexual contact as well as blood transfusions. Surprisingly, while symptoms of Zika include fevers, headaches, joint pain, and skin rashes, only 1 in 5 people infected actually develop these symptoms. As a result, many people may be infected without actually realizing it. Accurate diagnosis of Zika virus can be done via lab tests on body fluids (i.e. blood, saliva, urine). While there is currently no cure for Zika, the disease is usually mild enough to only require some rest, fluids, and pain/fever medicines as needed.
Given the relatively low likelihood of developing such mild symptoms, what is the big deal behind Zika? It turns out that Zika can be transmitted from a pregnant mother to her offspring, and this can lead to a number of devastating birth defects. Most prominently, Zika has been shown to cause offspring microcephaly – a brain abnormality that leads to intellectual disability, reduced head size, and in more severe cases, death. Currently, scientists are trying to understand the link between Zika and microcephaly. While a vaccine is still in development, preventative measures are already being put in place to reduce exposure to mosquitoes that could be spreading the virus.
It’s been over 60 years since Zika was first detected in humans, and yet extensive research into the virus started only recently. Why did it take so long? Just as with the Ebola virus, Zika only affected small populations in less developed regions around the world, which meant that there wasn’t a sufficient economic incentive to intervene at the time. It is only when these viruses started affecting more developed areas (i.e. North America and Europe) that governments decided to intervene. Moving forward, neglected diseases need to be researched when they are first discovered, as this is the only way to be able to successfully combat these diseases before it is too late.
BBC News: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-35370848
World Health Organization: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/zika/en/
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/zika/
Written By: Aly Balbaa
Aly Balbaa is currently in his third year of undergraduate studies at Western University and serves as UAEM Western's VP Empowerment.
As we wrap up A2M week, it’s important not to lose sight of one of the most threatening yet neglected issues facing humanity – antibiotic resistance. According to the World Health Organization, “globally 480 000 people develop multi-drug resistant TB each year, and drug resistance is starting to complicate the fight against HIV and malaria.”  Multi-drug resistant (MDR) microorganisms are a product of natural selection. Bacteria and viruses that acquire mutations that impede with antibiotic efficacy pass down their genes and give rise to strains of “superbugs” .
The urgent issue of antibiotic resistance further compounds the issue of access to medicines, many of which are lucratively priced. As more medicines are needed to combat multi-drug resistant strains, the exponentially higher the price for patients. Patients suffering from neglected diseases are especially vulnerable. A recent article on drug-resistant tuberculosis (DR-TB) published by MSF features Simphiwe Zwide, a South African man fighting DR-TB . He follows an intensive MDR-TB treatment regime that consists of ingesting up to 26 pills each morning. South Africa has one of the highest burdens of TB and DR-TB in the world, with around 20 000 people diagnosed with DR-TB in 2015.
During A2M week, we advocated against profit-driven research, which neglects research on antibiotic resistance. According to a 2015 peer-reviewed paper, “of the 18 largest pharmaceutical companies 15 abandoned the antibiotic field” and “antibiotic research conducted in academia has been scaled back as a result of funding cuts”. Big pharmaceutical companies tend to neglect antibiotic development because antibiotics are widely used for short-term conditions and are deemed not as profitable as investing in drugs that treat chronic conditions .
Beyond A2M week, we must push researchers, pharmaceutical companies, and government to increase research on antibiotic resistance. In an evolutionary “arms race”, novel drugs that have the ability to eradicate superbugs unlike current drugs on the market must be developed. Furthermore, education on antibiotic use is essential. Misuse and overuse of antibiotics have contributed immensely to antibiotic resistance. Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organization, warned in 2012, “in terms of new replacement antibiotics, the pipeline is virtually dry. A post-antibiotic era means, in effect, an end to modern medicine as we know it. Things as common as strep throat or a child’s scratched knee could once again kill.”
Written by: Wenna Deng
Wenna Deng is currently in her third year of undergraduate studies at Western University and is one of UAEM Western's Global Research and Development Leaders.