Ralph Maughan

Ralph Maughan

My daughter and her family just got back from a jungle vacation in Costa Rica. It was a beautiful place near the beach in a well preserved jungle in Latin America. There were many tropical birds, howler monkeys, fine sea fishing, and just a few mosquitoes. They were bitten a few times though. South and Latin America is where the Zika virus, carried by mosquitoes, is spreading rapidly.

At customs, returning to the United States, they were told not to get bitten by mosquitoes for two weeks once they got home. It would be best to stay mostly indoors. This was not for their personal benefit, but to protect Utah’s native mosquitoes from getting infected with the Zika virus. Perhaps her family had become infected but was so far showing no symptoms.

The new Zika virus is hardly on the tip of folks’ tongues right now, but it soon will be. Out of Africa, perhaps by way of Polynesia first, it is now advancing like a wildfire in dry cheatgrass. Zika is spread by the bite of the female Aedes aegypti mosquito and related species in the Aedes genus. Zika infects other kinds of mosquitoes too, but it isn’t known yet if they can transmit it.

Aedes genus mosquitoes inhabit the southern, eastern and central United States plus southern California. Mosquito season is coming. Zika fever from bites is already spreading in Puerto Rico. Clearly mainland native mosquitoes will soon become infected.

At first Zika seemed like a modest viral infection — a mild rash sometimes, a bit of fever and aches — but then it became associated with infants with the rare disorder microencephaly. These babies have abnormally small heads and small brains. Their brains almost always remain small, usually with profound mental retardation; worse than other causes of microencephaly. Last week the Center for Disease Control confirmed that Zika causes microencephaly and as well other birth defects. Worse still, the creation of the defect can happen at any time during a 9 month pregnancy. It is the first mosquito-borne disease to cause birth defects. While most people infected feel few to no symptoms, Zika seems to set off several autoimmune neurological diseases in adults such as Guillain-Barré paralysis and ADEM. The virus is still adapting to its human hosts (undergoing a bit of evolution), and it might be in the process of becoming more severe.

Hoping not to be overcome by birth defects, five Latin American countries have advised women not to get pregnant for up to two years (hoping for a vaccine by then). Ironically, these are mostly countries that have little birth control and ban abortion, and you have to be flatheaded sexist to think that pregnancy is a freely chosen, uncoerced, condition made by women alone. If this was effective advice, what would be the social effects of having no younger generation for two or more years? Some say, “just avoid pregnancy during the Zika season.” However, the season is 4-5 months and, of course, pregnancy is nine months.

As you can see, Zika leads to politics. These politics will come right on top of the U.S. presidential campaign. 

Already there is a Republican-Democrat split on funding to prevent, control, or develop a vaccine for Zika. President Obama has asked Congress for $1.8 billion in emergency funding — new funding — for surveillance, rapid-response programs, and money to develop a vaccine.  Republicans have told him to use leftover money from the 2014 Ebola scare/crisis and in general they have approached the matter a bit like climate change — skepticism, low priority, greater concern about the budget deficit. Certainly, it is possible Zika will burn out after one nasty year. This has happened once in Polynesia.

The president is now using some of the $600 million in remaining Ebola money. He is warning though that Ebola is hardly dead and gone away. Democrats are determined not to get caught downplaying the disease threat until the media creates panic as happened just before the 2014 mid-term elections. The Democrats did not perform well in that election.

The first mainland Zika-damaged fetuses will be detected by mid-summer. If the numbers are large, the political effects of women or couples wanting to abort their “pinheads” will be felt, especially if the Republicans nominate a pro-life militant like Ted Cruz. If adults in large numbers become ill with Zika caused brain and spinal column diseases, or other so far hidden effects, there will be recriminations about false economy — too much worry about a small addition to the budget deficit when babies and adults alike could have been kept disease-free. For comparison, $1.8 billion is just 2.3 percent of the Koch Brothers fortune.

Another potential Republican problem is that fetal tissue may prove crucial to probing the relationship between the virus and birth defects. Currently that party is trying to ban donations of fetal tissue.

Regardless of whether a vaccine is developed, there is evidence that genetically modified male Aedes mosquitoes, produced in a laboratory to be sterile, can lower and maybe greatly reduce the number of adult mosquitoes. In principle this method could be applied to many other mosquito species too, ridding the world of many modest to dread diseases that harm and kill humans, birds, and mammals. It won’t happen this year, but this solution would have benefits far beyond ending Zika. Then perhaps we could worry whether this worldwide pest ever had some positive ecological functions. I would be willing to spend much more than $1.8 billion.

Dr. Ralph Maughan of Pocatello is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He retired after teaching there for 36 years, specializing in voting, public opinion and natural resource politics. He has written three outdoor guides, including “Hiking Idaho” with Jackie Johnson Maughan. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

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