What To Know About Zika

by Terry Bryant

Zika Facts

By now, many people in the U.S. have heard of the Zika virus, as it dominated the airwaves for much of late 2015 and early 2016. The sudden conversation regarding the virus may make it seem like Zika has only been around for a short time, but it was actually discovered in Uganda back in 1947. It bears resemblance to yellow fever and West Nile, the latter of which has a consistent presence in Texas. Zika is always much more common around the Equator and in areas that produce a tropical or subtropical climate, but until recently, Zika was confined to Africa and Asia. In 2015, though, an outbreak in Brazil brought disease fears closer to the U.S., and with the onset of summer, areas of Florida and Texas are now at risk of localized spread of the virus.

Zika is an Emerging Threat

Zika is primarily spread through mosquito activity, and Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in particular. The Aedes aegypti prefers warmer climates, though the CDC believes it could migrate as far north as New York City. Aedes aegypti populations are expected to be more common and more concentrated in areas along the Gulf Coast, especially in cities like Houston. That’s because Aedes aegypti, according to the CDC, is well adapted to surviving in areas that humans inhabit, and have adapted to surviving and finding sources of water inside homes.

Zika is a low-level threat to most people, and in most cases, the patient will experience no symptoms. When symptoms are present, they typically include fever, rash, joint pain and headaches. These symptoms almost always resolve within a week, with no lasting complications. In some rare instances, though, Zika can result in Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can be life threatening and involves spreading muscle weakness and pain.

The most worrying element of the Zika outbreak, though, is the damage it can do to developing fetuses. The New England Journal of Medicine published evidence regarding Zika complications in April 2016, and confirmed the link between Zika infection in fetuses and microcephaly. Microcephaly is a devastating birth defect that refers to a dramatically reduced brain and head size in newborns. This condition is irreversible and cognitive outcomes are generally poor. Children born with microcephaly tend to live shorter lives, as well.

Although testing methods have improved in recent months, it’s still extremely difficult for a pregnant woman to know whether she has contracted Zika, and for her doctor to detect complications with the pregnancy related to Zika infection. For this reason, pregnant women living or traveling within the range of Aedes aegypti are encouraged to ward off mosquitos with repellants and long sleeved clothing.

Vaccines are being developed to combat Zika, but even though initial human trials are already underway, some researchers believe it could take years before a vaccine is approved for use by the public.

Predatory Marketing

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is already taking note of product manufacturers looking to capitalize on Zika fears. In fact, the FTC sent out several warning letters to manufacturers in August alone, and the letter states that product manufacturers must do the following if they are going to market their products as a way to prevent Zika infection:

  1. If the manufacturer claims that its products repel Aedes aegypti, then the manufacturer must produce human clinical testing that specifically includes methodology relevant to the Aedes aegypti mosquito. It’s not enough for a clinical test to demonstrate effectiveness to mosquitos in general – it must target Aedes aegypti in particular.
  2. If the manufacturer claims that its product provides full body protection (even if only applied to a small area), then the manufacturer must produce reliable, competent scientific evidence that this is indeed the case.
  3. If a manufacturer has made such claims without scientific evidence, they must immediately remove those claims from their marketing materials or they face legal consequences.

In addition to fines and forced recalls, companies in violation of FTC rules may be ordered to pay back consumers. It’s a problem that comes under the purview of state attorney general offices as well. New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman confirmed in early August that his office has already sent out cease and desist letters to several companies, threatening them with legal action if they do not stop marketing products claiming to prevent Zika infection.

Product manufacturers that are likely to be in violation of FTC standards include those marketing ultrasonic repellers, botanical oils, wristband repellants, anti-Zika spray repellants and even anti-Zika condoms (because the virus can also spread through sexual contact).

Product manufactures that make these claims without providing sufficient evidence may also expose themselves to class-action lawsuits from consumers, especially among those that purchased the product and then later suffered from a Zika infection.

Zika and Liability

Twenty-nine confirmed cases of Zika have already been detected in Houston, though all 29 victims were infected while traveling to Central or South America. This still represents a significant health hazard, as mosquitoes that bite infected people can then go on to infect others. And though there haven’t been any confirmed cases of locally transmitted Zika in Houston (at least as of late August 2016), county and city health experts believe it is only a matter of time before it does happen.

It’s up to pregnant women and their doctors, then, to protect themselves, and pregnant women in particular should expect their doctor to take every step necessary to detect the Zika virus. Blood and urine testing can confirm a Zika case, and should be done if a pregnant woman has any reason to believe they have been exposed to Aedes aegypti bites. These tests are improving all the time, and doctors should always provide the most current version to ensure optimal speed and accuracy for a diagnosis. Testing is essential for providing pregnant women with all the information they need to make decisions regarding their pregnancy. Doctors that do not provide adequate testing are doing their patients a disservice, and may be liable if they do not detect a Zika case in time for a pregnant woman to respond appropriately.

Zika can spread through sexual contact, so people must also take steps to inform their sexual partners and reduce the chances of transmitting the disease. The CDC has confirmed that Zika can survive longer in semen than in other bodily fluids, and that condoms can reduce the likelihood of transmitting the virus. Safe sex practices, then, are considered a must for men who have been exposed to Aedes aegypt.

Finally, a municipality may be liable for Zika cases if local counties and cities do not properly monitor and react to the spread of the virus. This can be difficult to prove, and Houston is taking significant steps in monitoring Zika. For example, according to Microsoft, its drones are surveying mosquito hotspots to detect and trap mosquito populations for further study – an initiative known as Project Premonition. According to a Microsoft news release, Project Premonition is already generating hundreds of gigabytes of mosquito data every week in Houston, helping city officials and epidemiologists map the virus’s progress into the city.

The fight against Zika is just beginning, and how doctors, governments and others react to it will determine how it spreads, where it spreads, and if it even spreads at all. But until the battle over Zika is won, people need to stay informed.