Friday, August 5th marks the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. This time around, the Games are quite controversial with allegations of corruption amongst the various contractors, incomplete work, the fact that this is taking place during a political coup in the host country, etc. But one thing that is getting lots of press is also one of the smallest (literally) issues.
By now, most people have heard about the Zika virus. It is mainly known from Brazil, though it has appeared in other parts of the world as well, is spread by mosquitoes and, in most cases, the symptoms range from none to rather minor. That is if the victim isn’t a pregnant woman. By processes that are poorly understood at present, the Zika virus can cause microcephaly (an abnormally small head due to an abnormally small and deformed brain). Microcephaly is incurable and untreatable. Naturally, this has caused a great measure of concern. So much so that some athletes have bowed out of the Games (even male athletes who, last time I checked, can’t get pregnant). Even TV networks have changed their plans with NBC replacing some of the female reporters they were originally going to send with Meredith Vieira and Hoda Kotb (that is not a typo – it is an issue of transliterating her Egyptian last name from Arabic writing to Western writing).
There is also some concern in the United States as the mosquitoes we have are capable of carrying the virus. But what I think has the government in near panic mode is the fact that Zika is a nightmare for the right-to-life crowd. For most other birth defects, they can argue that, with appropriate therapy, the victims can have some semblance of a life. They also claim that future advances in fetal surgery and other medical technology can mitigate defects as well. Not so with microcephaly. That’s it. Hence the pressure that is being exerted on the scientific community to derive some sort of method to combat Zika and its mosquito carriers.
At least one scientists claims they found a weak spot in the mosquito genome that would make it possible to wipe them out completely. Then there is talk that a vaccine is being worked on. However, given past history in humanity’s struggle to deal with mosquitoes, there is ground for skepticism. Mosquitoes are highly adaptable and have a proven ability to acquire resistance to whatever insecticide or strategy we can throw at them. And it does seem unusual that someone claims to be near to developing a vaccine for a virus that is little known.
If the effort to control Zika is as successful as the effort to control other mosquito-borne diseases, Zika is here to stay. Since it mainly poses a threat to pregnant women, perhaps it might be a good idea to consider strategies from that angle. Perhaps it might force people to actually put some thought into the idea of whether or not to have kids. Currently, most people put more thought into choosing players for their fantasy sports teams than they do in reproduction. There could be other changes in how people reproduce. Can you think of some?
Of course it could be worse. In Kurt Vonnegut’s book “Galapagos”, he postulated a microbe that destroyed the ovaries. It spread throughout the world via air travel until the only group that wasn’t affected was a band of tourists in the Galapagos Islands (hence the title). Cut off from the rest of the world due to the disease, the tourists are the last breeding set of human beings. Over long spans of time, the humans gradually evolve into something resembling a very intelligent and dexterous seal. The story was said to be inspired by Vonnegut hearing about the evolution of Darwin’s Finches (birds on the islands that evolved from a single group of birds blown to the islands in a storm). Then there is the story and film “The Children of Man” which recounts how human reproduction ceases and the utter chaos that takes place when a pregnant woman is discovered.
While Zika is nowhere near as bad as its fictional counterparts, I think it may take some effort and time to come up with ways to bring it under some measure of control.