Last week, news emerged which raised serious questions about what we know regarding the transmission of the Zika virus, a disease that has spread rapidly across the world over the past year.
A report from the University of Utah School of Medicine confirmed that the son of a man who died of the virus in June has contracted Zika. This case is remarkable, as it had been previously thought that Zika was only contractible in adults through mosquito bites in Zika-infected regions or through sexual intercourse. Doctors theorize that, unlike in other cases, the man contracted Zika through contact with his father’s sweat or tears.
On September 28, researchers from the University of Utah School of Medicine and ARUP Laboratories in Salt Lake City published details of the case in the New England Journal of Medicine. It was reported that the father (who had contracted the illness from mosquito bites while travelling through southwest Mexico) in this case had levels of the virus 100,000 times higher than levels found in samples taken from others infected by the virus.
Doctors report that the son had contact with his father’s skin and wiped his eyes – both without gloves. The abnormally high level of the virus present in the father’s body may explain how his son contracted the illness by contact with sweat or tears.
“What this case tells me is that doctors should think about Zika when they see someone who is severely ill and might have been exposed,” stated Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, the infectious disease specialist who treated both patients. “It now expands the spectrum of illness.”
Anxiety over the Zika virus has run high since the virus broke out in Brazil in 2015 and quickly spread through South, Central, and even North America. Since the initial outbreak, it is estimated that more than 1.5 million people in Brazil have contracted the illness.
Internationally, many governments and health agencies have issued warnings to their citizens against visiting countries where Zika is particularly active. Many countries have even issued warnings advising women to avoid pregnancy due to fear that the virus could potentially cause fetal anomalies – specifically microcephaly, a condition wherein the baby’s head is abnormally small.
The epidemic has naturally inspired fear, and the news that there is the possibility (however slight) that transmission could occur through contact with sweat or tears will likely only increase that fear. However, what this report really tells us is that it is very early in the study of Zika. That doctors suspect the disease was, in this case, contracted through contact with sweat or tears – based on the process of elimination – demonstrates that there is still a great deal we do not understand about this virus.
This is also demonstrated in the panic about the risk of microcephaly in babies whose mothers have Zika. The fear of the condition has become so extreme that governments are urging women to avoid pregnancy (for two years in the case of El Salvador). In response to the outbreak, Planned Parenthood has launched a canvass of Miami, pushing both their brand and their services. The United Nations, as well, has stated that "sexual and reproductive health services" (including abortion) are essential to an effective public health response" – despite the fact that microcephaly is typically not a fatal condition. Moreover, a research paper published in June casts doubt on the risk Zika poses to an unborn baby. The study – preliminary results of which were also published in the New England Journal of Medicine – looked at nearly 12,000 pregnant Colombian women infected with Zika. None of the women gave birth to a baby with microcephaly.
The Zika virus is a serious global issue that governments and health authorities should be concerned about. However, it is important that health policies be based on fact, not fear. It may be that, in this case, Zika was contracted through exposure to bodily fluid. However, much more research is needed – particularly research into understanding the relationship between Zika and microcephaly and preventing microcephaly in babies, rather than increased funding for birth control, sterilization, and abortion.
Solid research, not fear, is the foundation of lifesaving public health policy.
Nora Sullivan is Research Director at the Life Institute in Dublin, Ireland and an Associate Scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C. She holds a Master’s degree in Public Affairs from University College Dublin and has extensive experience in pro-life research and policy work.