The National Institutes of Health confirmed that the Zika virus outbreak has reached pandemic levels in Latin America.
“You have multiple countries in South America and in the Caribbean, so by anybody’s definition that would be considered a pandemic,” explained Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the infectious diseases branch at the institute.
His comments come after experts and the World Health Organization (WHO) warned the disease had “explosive pandemic potential.” Marcos Espinal, head of Communicable Diseases and Health Analysis for the WHO’s regional satellite, the Pan American Health Organization, predicted the world could see “3 to 4 million cases of Zika virus disease.”
Doctors in the U.S. have confirmed at least 31 Zika cases.
“If you have this much Zika in South America and the Caribbean, sooner or later we’re going to see a local transmission,” continued Fauci. “Most of the United States goes through a real winter and that’s very, very important in containing mosquito-borne viruses.”
Aedes aegypti mosquitos carry the disease. While primarily found in Africa, all but two nations on the Western Hemisphere boast significant populations. (Chile and Canada are the exceptions.) They also carry Dengue, yellow fever, and Chikungunya. Doctors found the disease in one infant during an autopsy, and numerous mothers reported symptoms.
Experts are working to understand what has now become a clear link between Zika and microcephaly, a disorder in which an infant’s skull is too small to fit his or her brain. This leads to serious mental disabilities.
Microcephaly occurs if the brain does not form properly in pregnancy or stops growing after birth. Children can suffer from seizures, developmental delays, intellectual disability, and feeding problems.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) stated the disorder is typically uncommon. Following the outbreak of Zika, however, Brazil has discovered over 4,000 cases and is diagnosing an average of 200 cases a week. In 2015, the country tracked over 2,400 cases, compared to the 147 in 2014.
Latin America may receive emergency vaccines by the end of the year, even though experts believe a legalized vaccine is still ten years away.
“This vaccine is easy to produce. It could be cranked to very high levels in a really short time,” commented Gary Kobinger, a Canadian scientist working on a vaccine.
Human testing could begin in August. He also hopes governments will allow usage of the vaccines without full approval due to the outbreak.
Scientists base the vaccine on those used for Dengue fever and West Nile virus. No one produced a vaccine for West Nile because scientists could not find a company to distribute it. They should not run into this problem with Zika.
“We’re already talking to a few companies who are able to partner with us in advanced development,” Fauci told the media.