As of this writing, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta is strongly recommending that pregnant woman postpone travel to many countries across the world, including the popular Caribbean islands. The CDC is taking these steps due to the possibility that these women may become are infected with a mosquito borne virus called Zika. The World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Dr Margaret Chan, has said that Zika had gone “from a mild threat to one of alarming proportions” and expects the virus to spread through the Americas and affect between three million and four million people.
Eighty percent of individuals who are infected with Zika do not show symptoms. However, when symptoms do occur, they can last up to a week or so and include fever, rash, pink eye, and joint pain. Some clinicians suggest that Zika virus infection may result in the autoimmune [against oneself] condition, Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS). This is rare disorder where too much inflammation damages the nerve cells, causing muscle weakness and may lead to paralysis.
The greatest concern however right now is that health agencies “strongly suspect” that when a pregnant women is bitten by a mosquito that is carring the virus, that even if she does not experience symptoms, that her offspring may develop brain malformations.
This latest outbreak adds to concerns that infectious diseases are one of the top threats challenging our world—a major topic on the agenda of last week’s World Economic Forum world leader attendees. Until vaccines or treatments are developed, viral infections such as Zika, Ebola, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) remain a threat to the world’s population.
Currently, there are no commercially available vaccines or treatments for Zika. Until recently the cost to develop a successful vaccine was far greater than what the manufacturers would recoup in vaccine sales. However, development of a vaccine for Zika will likely now escalate since Zika has spread so widely, infecting over 1.5 million individuals and its being linked to neurological problems, especially in newborns.
In addition to a lack of vaccines and treatments for a multitude of viral diseases, another significant health-care crisis we are facing is treatment of infection by anti-microbial-resistant pathogens. As Dr. Keiji Fukudaof the World Health Organization has stated: “We really hope to pull the world back from the brink where antibiotics don’t work anymore”.
When bacteria are stressed, for example by a killer antibiotic, their genetic material may change, mutate, so that they can tolerate and become resistant to such compounds. The bacteria can then replicate easily and outgrow bacterial strains that were not resistant to the antibiotic.
Fifty percent of antibiotic prescriptions written by U.S. physicians are of no benefit to the patient, and when used to fatten livestock and poultry it gives bacteria even more opportunity to acquire antibiotic tolerance.
It is our immune systems that identify, destroy, and remove invading pathogens. When our body recognizes that it has been invaded by foreign agents, a strong inflammatory responses is triggered to meet the onslaught of the pathogens. White blood cells accumulate in the area to combat the invaders. These immune cells release cytokines and other immune messages recruiting more white blood cells in an attempt to “burn out” the infection. Without a powerful inflammatory response, we cannot limit or survive infections.
In the absence of drugs or treatments that prevent and control the growth of viruses and other microorganism the immune system must be optimized to protect the body against them.