Column: Why the Zika outbreak represents more than just a virus

A baby plays with a doctor during a group therapy session for babies born with microcephaly at the Altino Ventura Foundation, a treatment center that provides free health care, in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016. Brazil is in the midst of a Zika outbreak and authorities say they have also detected a spike in cases of microcephaly in newborn children, but the link between Zika and microcephaly is as yet unproven. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

As cases of the Zika virus spread to Europe and the United States, along with serious birth defects in children, the World Health Organization has declared the virus a “public health emergency of international concern.”

What’s more concerning, however, is how America and the developed world continue to respond in fear to spreading viruses without a serious plan to address global health standards, human rights and poverty.

The Zika virus has been portrayed by many news sources as the latest foreign virus to reach our shores, but it’s been a concern long before the average American even heard the word “Zika”. According to USA Today, Zika first appeared in 1947 in Uganda. Researchers speculated that the virus likely arrived in Brazil this past May during the 2014 FIFA World Cup games, and there are now more than 30 diagnosed cases in the continental US.

Although not usually deadly when contracted in adults, the virus has been linked to Brazil’s alarming increase in cases of microcephaly, a series of alarming brain-related birth defects, from around 200 cases per year to 3,500 cases reported between October 2015 and January 2016 alone—just a four month period/

Similar to headlines and political news surrounding the Ebola outbreak in 2014, American politicians seem widely in favor of once again stepping in, but only to fight the virus. If America’s only strategy of fighting global disease and suffering is to stand up once viruses reach its shores, are we really doing enough?

“We need to get out in front of the Zika virus to make sure that we don’t end up having the kind of feeling across the country that we’re sort of reacting too late, like we did on Ebola,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a recent warning to the Obama administration, according to The Hill.

When Senator McConnell talks about this “kind of feeling across the country,” it seems he’s sadly only talking about the panic borne of two Ebola-related deaths in the US, with no concern for the some 10,000 Ebola deaths in Africa throughout the winter of 2015. Will the US strategy through Zika and other future viruses continue to be one of heartless quarantine and American self-concern? Couldn’t it be considered more dangerous to only treat US cases of Zika and Ebola alike without a concerning for the ways these viruses destroy communities throughout the rest of the developing world?

Although the outbreak of Zika has politicians looking to quarantine and isolate the disease from its recent roots in Brazil, Brazil has hardly been able to isolate itself from the disease of American capitalism and corporate greed.

American trade deals and controlled ties between American and Brazilian banks tanked their economy through the global financial crisis in 2008, and the opening of free trade by American presidents has led to the kind of labor exploitation that’s kept large foreign populations with a dangerous lack of resources and capital, slowing development in adequate housing and basic health services.

Now, with developing countries increasingly exposed to diseases and without the tools to combat them, an American strategy of isolation alone seems dangerous and detrimental to global health. To protect the American population, doesn’t it seem more smart and moral, albeit more costly, for the United States to invest in the kinds of solutions needed to stop the spread of these viruses at their origins?

Developing research studies on the causes and symptoms of Zika have pointed to the possibilities of currently evolving vaccines, the possible eradication of mosquito-borne diseases with genetically modified insects, and ways to neutralize dangerous mosquito populations as a whole in developing countries. The problem seems to be, however, that all of these possible solutions cost a lot of money.

Cost, unfortunately, is a dreaded issue even in the American healthcare system.  With most research on vaccines, medical devices and equipment driven by profit incentives and big pharmaceutical companies, our contribution to progress of global health standards and human rights seems more linked to profit, rather than it does to our country’s morals. And so the first step, it seems, must be demanding that we place the value of global health standards above profit.

The world has been waiting for America to embrace higher global health standards with compassion instead of isolationist fear. Such an embrace will require making some big changes to industry and policy, but surely, it’s about time we do it.


Bennett Cognato is a staff columnist to The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at bennett.cognato@uconn.edu.