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Expert: Focus on Zika's Consequences, Not Disease Itself

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A professor at George Washington University's Milken School of Public Health says the battle against the Zika virus must be focused on its associated effects.

“The problem with the Zika virus is not the disease itself,” Dr. Ronald Waldman told VOA’s "Straight Talk Africa" on Wednesday. “It’s a very mild disease that lasts about a week, and there haven't been any reported deaths from the disease alone.”

Therefore, he said, the task ahead is to understand more about the consequences of the disease, notably microcephaly, a neurological condition found in some 4,000 Brazilian infants whose mothers were infected with Zika.  

Clarifying the facts on Zika, Waldman said, “The World Health Organization has not declared the Zika virus disease to be a public health emergency of international concern. They have declared the cluster of microcephaly that was detected in northeastern Brazil to be a public health emergency of international concern.”

That cluster of cases would be an emergency regardless of whether the Zika virus caused it, Waldman said, and it’s conceivable that after the studies are done, there might be a different cause identified, but “we don’t know for sure.”

'So many unknowns'

“We are in an unfortunate situation with so many unknowns," said Josh Michaud of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization focusing on national health issues.

"One of the problems we have," he said, "is that we don’t have a good test to diagnose Zika easily and rapidly, so it’s very difficult to know exactly how many cases are in a country or a location and how quickly it may be spreading, although we have a general sense that it has spread rapidly across Latin America.”

Michaud said that in parts of the world where access to health care is limited, governments need to do a better job of surveillance, setting up studies to make sure the link between Zika infections and microcephaly is genuine. Governments also need to set up mosquito-control programs and inform people about how to guard against mosquito bites that cause the infection.

The head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Washington lawmakers Wednesday that he expected Puerto Rico and other territories to be hard hit by the Zika virus, adding that the CDC "will need additional resources" to do the work necessary to reduce its risks.

The CDC has confirmed one case of the Zika virus being transmitted sexually in the U.S. But Waldman said, "We shouldn’t lose sight: This is a mosquito-borne disease, primarily. There have been a few cases, one of which is fairly well-documented, of sexual transmission, but the feeling from public health authorities now is that this doesn’t and will not represent a very important mode of transmission.”