Brazil’s Health Minister: Zika ‘More Serious Than We Can Imagine’

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Brazilian Health Minister Marcelo Castro admitted the Zika outbreak is worse than previous reports made it appear.

“Eighty percent of the people infected by Zika do not develop significant symptoms. A large number of people have the virus with no symptoms, so the situation is more serious than we can imagine,” he told Reuters. “Our big hope is finding a vaccine.”

Castro also informed the outlet the country will demand mandatory reporting of the virus.

Rio de Janeiro officials have been recording two new cases of Zika every hour. The local government reported 1,499 notifications of potential diagnoses of the disease in the first 29 days of 2016, though doctors only confirmed 64 Zika infections. Edimilson Migowski, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), claims the “records of suspected cases account for only 2% of the total number of infected people, which is close to 75,000.”

Scientists believe they can produce a vaccine ready for human tests by the end of 2016.

“This vaccine is easy to produce. It could be cranked to very high levels in a really short time,” said Canadian scientist Gary Kobinger.

It might take a decade to legalize the use of the vaccine, but Kobinger “hopes governments will allow the use of it in emergency situations.”

“What would take the longest time would be the process of passing it through the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) and other regulatory agencies to allow it for public use and that may take up to 10 to 12 years,” explained Nikos Vasilakis, an expert at the Centre for Biodefence and Emerging Infectious Diseases in Galveston, TX.

Mild effects of Zika burden scientists’ ability to research the disease, but pregnant women face a larger danger.

Experts are working to understand what has now become a clear link between Zika and microcephaly. The disorder occurs if the brain does not form properly in pregnancy or stops growing after birth, which causes a small head. This leads to serious mental disabilities, seizures, developmental delays, intellectual disability, and feeding problems.

“The microcephaly cases are increasing by the week and we do not have an estimate of how many there will be. The situation is serious and worrying,” stated Castro.

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.

Colombian officials urged women to delay pregnancy due to the outbreak.

“It is recommended that women postpone — to the extent possible — the decision to become pregnant until the country can move out of the epidemic phase of the Zika virus,” pleaded the Health Ministry.

Medical officials in Brazil, El Salvador, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico have also advised women against getting pregnant.

“It’s a very personal decision, but at this moment of uncertainty, if families can put off their pregnancy plans, that’s what we’re recommending,” stated Angela Rocha, the pediatric infectologist at Oswaldo Cruz Hospital in Brazil.

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Zika virus a public health emergency due to the thousands of cases of the virus linked to birth defects in newborn children.

“I am now declaring that the recent cluster of microcephaly and other neurological abnormalities reported in Latin America following a similar cluster in French Polynesia in 2014 constitutes a public health emergency of international concern,” announced WHO director general Margaret Chan.

Castro and scientists speculate Zika caused the 3,700 cases of microcephaly in Brazil.

“This is an extraordinary event,” she continued. “It poses a public health threat to other parts of the world and a coordinated international response is needed.”

Last week, the 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.”

The National Institutes of Health acknowledged 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.