The focus of such heated international debate is a tiny microorganism — the Zika virus — which made headlines in the past year for its rapid spread across the Americas.
The World Health Organization has reported that the Zika virus was strongly suspected to be a cause of microcephaly — the occurrence of unusually small heads and associated developmental issues in infants — but more scientific evidence was required to prove it conclusively.
While the evolution and impact of the virus is being tracked, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists a range of guidelines for the public, particularly for travelers and pregnant women to avoid mosquito bites and prevent disease transmission. Most importantly, there is no vaccine for the Zika virus at this time.
A century ago, the sheer notion of a “foreign” virus influencing personal and professional decisions of people in a different continent within such a short timespan would have seemed far-fetched.
Today, the international nature of our economy and easy accessibility of global transportation systems dictates otherwise.
We carefully monitor worldwide flu trends and Ebola outbreaks an ocean away to keep us informed and safe.
However, such public health scares in a globalised era are great levellers to unite scientists, biotech companies and governments to work together on a scale not economically feasible for localized diseases.
For instance, researchers from the University of California, San Francisco are developing a portable sequencing machine that just needs to be plugged to a laptop to detect a variety of diseases, including Ebola and Zika (see
Scientists across the world are in a race to develop vaccines for Zika. This rigorous process involves finding a viral component or creating an inactivated virus that generates an intense immune response, clinically formulating it into a vaccine, and testing it in animal models before proceeding to clinical trials in humans. Potential release dates are reported to range from the end of this year to several years away.
All this knowledge only makes us appreciate some of the simplest and most powerful tools we have in our arsenal against communicable diseases: vaccines. A tiny vial and a rigorous immunization schedule — both resulting from decades of study —makes us immune to diseases such as polio, measles, and small pox.
So before your next vaccine is due, pause a minute to thank generations of researchers and the marvel of scientific innovations. It is still the best shot to save us and our loved ones.