Earlier this month, on August 1, for the first time in history, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommended against traveling to a location within the continental United States. The warning for pregnant women to avoid a neighborhood in Miami fueled anxiety about the Zika virus, which has overtaken regions of South and Central America. As of August 19, the CDC says pregnant women should not visit another area at Miami Beach, where additional cases of the virus have been confirmed.
In comparison to Ebola, which pitched Western Africa into crisis two years ago, Zika confers low mortality. A recent study links Zika with Guillain-Barré (GB) syndrome, a paralytic illness that can be life threatening — however the incidence of GB was only 2.4 cases per 10,000 Zika infections. Only 20% of patients with Zika even develop symptoms, and those few patients usually suffer banal complaints of fever, rash, and joint pains. Prior to 2007, medical practitioners throughout Africa and Southeast Asia considered Zika a benign illness.
Why in 2016, then, has Zika earned the title “This Year’s Scariest Virus”? Why the unprecedented measures by the CDC? Why has it compelled the World Health Organization to declare a public health emergency?
As Christians, how do we understand the outbreak, and how do we respond to the fears, both in our communities and in our own hearts?
Although Zika rarely harms adults, we all have seen headlines alerting us to its devastating effects upon unborn children. The outbreak in Brazil has unveiled an association between Zika infection and infant microcephaly (Latin for “small head”). In afflicted babies, the small head circumference heralds a more sinister issue: abnormal development of the brain, often in conjunction with other nervous system malformations.