What is the cause of the Zika outbreak in the Americas?

I recently read an article by Claire Bernishthat said that the release of GM mosquitoes was the cause of the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil – this immediately set alarm bells ringing. As it turns out, any real evidence to support these claims was lacking and Christie Wilcox, writing for Discover magazine,has done a fantastic job in demolishing this argument by showing the inaccuracy of the dates and the distances involved. The GMM release site was 300 km away from the epicentre of the Zika outbreak and the release was in 2011-12, not 2015 as was stated in a similar article by Oliver Tickell in The Ecologist.3

 “The Earth is round, not flat (and it’s definitely not hollow). Last year was the hottest year on record, and climate change is really happening … And FFS, genetically modified mosquitoes didn’t start the Zika outbreak.” – Christie Wilcox 

Although I have my own concerns regarding the control of mosquitoes by means of genetic modification, I think that the scare-mongering surrounding GMMs and the Zika virus does more harm than good – especially when the scientific data is at best deficient and at worst entirely fabricated. Amongst the inevitable conspiracy theories that have surfaced the “best” argument that has been put forward seems to be that “Nature will find a way”. On another note, I also find the seeming disdain of laboratory scientists towards ecologists to be somewhat worrying and rather baffling. These fields have so much potential crossover that I hope any enmity can be set aside so that robust scientific research and enquiry can be conducted in a collaborative way.

image-20160126-19651-1eko782

Aedes aegypti. Emil August Goeldi (1859-1917). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This brings me to Amy Vittor’s excellent and comprehensive assessment of the potential sources of Zika in the Americas and her highly plausible proposition for why we are seeing such high infection rates.4 The Zika virus was first recorded in a rhesus monkey in the Zika forest in Uganda in 1947, then in the Aedes africanus mosquito the following year. The virus is now also found to be transmitted by Ae. albopictus and Ae. aegypti mosquitoes. These species are now found throughout the tropics and subtropics and as their ranges have expanded, so too has the possible reach of Zika and other mosquito-borne diseases associated with them. It wasn’t until 2007 that a large-scale outbreak of Zika infecting humans first occurred, infecting 75% of the population of the island of Yap in Micronesia.4, 5 

The spread of the virus is in all likelihood the result of human-aided dispersal of both the virus and Aedes mosquitoes. As the virus may not be detected by infected humans (up to 80% of infected people do not show any symptoms)4,5 and there is currently no cure, it is possible for an infected person to travel to an area where the virus has not been recorded and to spread it to previously unexposed mosquito populations there, so creating new vectors.

But what has changed to bring about this rapid spread of the disease in the Americas? If we accept that international travel by humans and the worldwide transportation of goods have enabled the means to transport the disease and its vectors, why are we only seeing these effects in the Americas now? There are a combination of further factors that have, as Vittor points out, come together to create the perfect environment for Zika to take hold and spread, including: the creation of more suitable mosquito habitat as a result of deforestation and planting arable crops or urbanisation; climate-change linked increases in temperature and/or humidity in areas that were previously too cold or dry to support mosquito populations; the failure of previous Aedes aegypti population control programmes; and the large pool of susceptible human hosts living in close proximity to each other and to these mosquito-favourable habitats.4

Mark Lynas, writing in The Guardian newspaper, also very effectively takes on the various GM mosquito conspiracy theories and then goes on to conclude that innocent lives will be lost if we do not embrace this technology.7 Although there is no doubt that mosquitoes are responsible for spreading an array of terrible diseases; the fact that we have created the conditions and opportunities for the mosquitoes and these diseases to extend beyond their historical ranges and infect many more people must surely be accepted as our own responsibility. I think it is a sad indictment of our scientists and ecologists if they cannot (or will not) work together towards an overarching framework to protect people from the effects of our own actions. We need to promote and encourage the use of ‘good science’ to inform our decisions and ultimately our actions.

Further research into and analysis of mosquito ecology is urgently required so that we can more fully understand the implications of mosquito eradication (by genetic or conventional controls) on the various associated ecosystems and diseases. If we do not ask questions about the potential impacts of our proposed actions, we are destined to repeat the same mistakes that have led us to this point. Perhaps, we should also examine the implications of increased habitat loss, climate change and urbanisation, and consider whether we are prepared to live with the consequences or take action to limit the most deleterious effects.

References:

1. Bernish, C. (2016) Zika Outbreak Epicenter in Same Area Where GM Mosquitoes Were Released in 2015 http://theantimedia.org/zika-outbreak-epicenter-in-same-area-where-gm-mosquitoes-were-released-in-2015/

2. Wilcox, C. (2016) No, GM Mosquitoes Didn’t Start The Zika Outbreak. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/science-sushi/2016/01/31/genetically-modified-mosquitoes-didnt-start-zika-ourbreak/#.VrXcU8eExo4

3. Tickell, O. (2016) Pandora’s box: how GM mosquitos could have caused Brazil’s microcephaly disaster http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2987024/pandoras_box_how_gm_mosquitos_could_have_caused_brazils_microcephaly_diasaster.html

4. Vittor, A. (2016) Explainer: where did Zika virus come from and why is it a problem in Brazil? https://theconversation.com/explainer-where-did-zika-virus-come-from-and-why-is-it-a-problem-in-brazil-53425

5. Duffy, R. et al. (2009) Zika virus outbreak on Yap Island, Federated States of Micronesia. New England Journal of Medicine. 360(24):2536-43 http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa0805715#t=articleTop

6. Giri, D. (2016) Zika Virus : Structure, Epidemiology, Pathogenesis, Symptoms, Laboratory Diagnosis and Prevention http://laboratoryinfo.com/zika-virus-structure-epidemiology-pathogenesis-symptoms-laboratory-diagnosis-and-prevention/#sthash.BYXGYuyI.dpuf

7. Lynas, M. (2016) Alert! There’s a dangerous new viral outbreak: Zika conspiracy theories http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/04/alert-theres-a-dangerous-new-viral-outbreak-zika-conspiracy-theories

Further reading:

World Health Organisation (WHO) Latest Zika situation report http://www.who.int/emergencies/zika-virus/situation-report/en/

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