Brazilian abortion activists face an uphill battle as they lobby for fewer restrictions in a heavily Catholic country where many of the women most affected by Zika virus hold anti-abortion views.
The virus, which is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, is strongly suspected to be causing a new wave of microcephaly cases in Brazil. Babies born with the birth defect have smaller heads and brains that aren’t fully developed, which can result in life-long developmental problems.
And across the world, scientists in China, India and Singapore — each of which have large populations and histories of mosquito-related infectious disease outbreaks — are under pressure to develop a Zika virus detection kit, a task that’s made even more challenging because none of their labs has access to live Zika samples.
1. China and Finland report first Zika virus cases in travelers
China reported its first case of Zika virus in the city of Ganzhou, according to China’s official Xinhua news agency. The 34-year-old patient had recently traveled to Venezuela and had been treated for Zika virus there before returning to China. Chinese health authorities stressed that the risk of Zika spreading in China is currently low, because the country’s cold winter temperatures are inhospitable to mosquitos. The virus could take hold if introduced in Hong Kong. It’s home to Aedes albopictus mosquitos, a vector for dengue fever, which is similar to Zika, and a relative of the Zika-carrying species Aedes aegypti.
Since last summer, two people in Finland have tested positive for Zika virus. In one case, the patient traveled to Maldives and returned to Finland in June. The country’s health officials declined to give more details on the other, more recent Zika case, Reuters reported.
2. Anti-abortion sentiment in Brazil presents a huge challenge to loosening the country’s restrictions
Brazilian women’s groups who plan to appeal its supreme court to loosen the country’s abortion laws face numerous obstacles, Reuters reports. Heavily Catholic with a rapidly growing Evangelical community, the country isn’t in favor of decriminalizing abortion, according to two 2010 polls. The poor in Brazil also tend to hold staunchly anti-abortion views, despite the fact that low-income communities have been hardest hit by Zika virus and microcephaly, the birth defect to which it is linked.
However, Brazilian women are still getting abortions. Approximately 850,000 Brazilian women have illegal abortions each year, a dangerous practice that’s also the leading cause of maternal mortality worldwide.
3. There’s mixed messaging on how Zika will affect the 2016 Olympics
Brazilian officials say the games will go on and stress that mosquito activity is typically low in August, which falls during mid-winter in Brazil. Some scientists disagree with the country’s official stance, however, and caution that drier, cooler temperatures don’t mean the Zika-carrying mosquitos will be gone. Mosquito eggs can remain dormant for more than a year, and hatch without warning if there’s a surge in heat or humidity.
“Weather is relative,” Nancy Bellei, director of clinical virology at the Brazilian Society of Infectology, told Reuters. “You can’t just hope for cool temperatures and hope that the virus won’t spread.”
There’s also the risk that a large international gathering will spread the virus even more quickly. While the risk for individual travelers is low, some Olympic athletes and coaches are concerned about bringing the virus home. The Kenyan Olympic team, for example, is considering withdrawing from the Rio games entirely.
4. The U.S. will study Zika’s link to Guillain-Barré Syndrome
Scientists from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will study Zika virus’ link to Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare neurological disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks the nerves. It can result in tingling in the legs and arms, muscle weakness, temporary paralysis and, in some rare cases, death. CDC neuroepidemiologist Dr. James Sejvar has already done a similar study in Brazil, but told Reuters that new research in Puerto Rico will be prospective, more intense and catch patients at the beginning of their illness, when they are sickest. Puerto Rico has 22 cases of Zika virus as of Feb 5.
5. Asian scientists are racing to make a test kit for Zika virus, but there’s one little problem
Scientists in China, India and Singapore are racing to make a detection kit for Zika virus. Because of their large populations and/or experience with past mosquito-borne outbreaks, these countries consider a fast, reliable and widely-available diagnostic tool a matter of vital importance. There’s just one thing standing in their way: nobody there has any live samples of the Zika virus to work with, Reuters reports.
One unnamed source from the team of Indian researchers told Reuters that development would be finished in less than a month if they could just get a sample of the live virus. Experts in Singapore expect testing kits for Zika, dengue and chikungunya viruses, which are all carried by the same mosquito, to hit hospitals by the end of March.