Climate Change May Spread Zika Virus To New Territory — Is An Outbreak In The U.S. Next?

Zika virus is “spreading explosively” throughout the Americas, and concern is now so serious that the World Health Organization has called an emergency meeting to determine whether it should be considered an international threat.

Meanwhile, some health officials are warning that the U.S. could be affected next — and quickly.

WHO has warned that Zika virus could spread to affect up to four million people. Right now, it has spread to 23 countries, and WHO suspects that every single country in the Americas (except Canada and Chile, which do not have the mosquito that transmits the virus) will be affected, NBC News reported.

Tropical regions that are home to the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which also carry dengue and yellow fever, could see cases of Zika, including the tropical regions in the southern U.S. and Hawaii. According to USA Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have already confirmed a dozen cases in a handful of states, and it seems to be spreading in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

However, despite their warnings about the explosive spread, WHO officials aren’t united in their description of how serious the threat is. Director General Dr. Margaret Chan called the level of alarm “extremely high,” while the assistant director Dr. Bruce Aylward rejected “alarm” for the more calm term “concerned.”

WHO will likely not ban travel to Brazil, and the purpose of the emergency meeting is to ensure such restrictions and those on trade don’t happen, Reuters reported. But the organization is under pressure respond quickly — more quickly that it did in response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa that killed 10,000 people. Some experts are calling the reaction to this emergency far too slow.

Right now, WHO is trying to figure out the connection between Zika virus and an alarming birth defect called microcephaly, which causes abnormally small skulls and thus underdeveloped brains in babies. In Brazil up to 2 percent of all newborns in the worst-hit state of Pernambuco are born with the defect; the country has reported almost 4,000 cases, or 30 times more than any year since 2010.

Trouble is, some countries affected by Zika virus haven’t seen more cases of microcephaly, leading to some doubts about the suspected connection.

“The possible links, only recently suspected, have rapidly changed the risk profile of Zika, from a mild threat to one of alarming proportions … The increased incidence of microcephaly is particularly alarming… Questions abound. We need to get some answers quickly.”

Dr. Lawrence Gostin is far more alarmist, calling on the organization to act swiftly and strongly to curb the “rapid spread” of the illness, noting that it’s “far better to be over-prepared than to wait until (an) epidemic spins out of control.”

And there’s one factor that could make Zika virus much worse — climate change and El Nino. Chan noted that both climate change and the weather pattern will likely significantly increase mosquito populations, cause the insects to move into a new area, and take Zika with them.

Does that mean the U.S. is next? Gostin warns yes, according to USA Today. Federal officials agree but noted that pockets of Zika virus can be contained in this country, just like other outbreaks of tropical diseases caused by the same mosquito. The threat will likely be the greatest in impoverished neighborhoods in warmer regions.

And it won’t take much, Gostin said, for the Zika virus to arrive on our shores: just one mosquito needs to get on a plane and head to the U.S. And a native mosquito could pick up the virus if it bites an infected person.

Zika, he warned, “will certainly come to the United States, and I think it will come fairly rapidly.”

[Photo by Felipe Dana/AP]