Earlier this week the Duchess Sussex of Meghan Markle canceled a trip to Zambia, citing exhaustion and concerns over the presence of Zika virus in the country. The Zika virus had been rather dormant in the media over the last year, all but vanishing in the wake of Trump speeches, trade wars, and Brexit. It had, however, remained a constant concern for those living in certain countries or traveling to them. Markle’s encounter with the Zika virus and the subsequent headlines have helped to push it back into public view, and once again, questions are being raised about its origin, transmission, and what is being done to fight it.
The Zika virus was first discovered in the Zika Forest in Uganda in 1947. The first recorded carriers were monkeys, but the forest was also home to over 70 species of mosquitoes, and they became the primary source of viral transmission. The disease was eventually discovered in humans in 1952, but for the most part remained confined to animals until 2007, when the first human outbreak was documented on the Island of Yap in the Federated States of Micronesia. In 2015, the virus made international headlines when Latin America and the Caribbean saw an explosion of human-related cases. As was the case in Africa, mosquitoes were the main culprits of transmission. However, in 2016, the virus saw a sharp decline in new cases, and with it a decline in news coverage.
Adults infected with Zika often display no symptoms. Those who do usually report mild fevers, rashes and muscle pain. The impact on unborn babies is far more devastating. Zika infections during pregnancy have resulted in miscarriages and babies being born with microcephaly, a condition in which a child's head is much smaller than it should be (Markle and husband Prince Harry had recently announced that they were expecting a child, and concern for the child’s welfare was thought to be Markle's main concern when she opted out of her trip to Zambia).
While a full-on cure for the virus remains elusive, health and government officials have been able to curb infections by going after the mosquitoes that carry and transmit the disease. In preparation for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilian government launched a large-scale effort to fumigate the city for the insects, while in England a biotech company called Oxitec developed genetically modified mosquitoes, which, when released into the wild, would mate with infected mosquitoes and pass a gene on that would prevent those mosquitoes from reproducing. In the United States, The Centers for Disease Control made a point of advising those traveling to countries with high rates of infection to use insect repellants.
Many world issues persist despite the ebbing and flowing of news coverage. Though not the hot story it once was, the Zika virus is still a viable threat and will remain so until a vaccine is found. Those traveling to countries that have been deemed areas of risk should take all necessary precautions to prevent infection, or, like the Duchess of Sussex, simply the put the trip off until another time.
JONATHAN ROBINSON is an intern at CATALYST. He is a travel enthusiast always adding new people, places, experiences to his story. He hopes to use writing as a means to connect with others like himself.