If you missed the March 16 Science Cafe NH in Nashua, here’s a write up by a volunteer named Benjamin DiZoglio, released by Dan Marcek, who moderates the discussion:
On Wednesday, March 16th, NH’s Science Café brought citizens and experts to Killarney’s Irish Pub for a forum on the Zika virus. Three doctors took the stage to give an overview on the virus, how it’s transmitted, and answer questions: Dr. James Noble’s an infectious disease specialist at Concord Hospital, Dr. James Alan is an Entomologist at UNH, and Dr. Liz Talbot is NH’s Deputy State Epidemiologist. Dr. Talbot, who travelled to Liberia during the Ebola crisis, charismatically led the conversation.
She was firmest in stressing the real dangers of Zika, but also jokingly used an analogy where her co-panelists were bitten by Zika infected mosquitos; she drew laughs while giving a real life example of how to handle the situation. Listening in the front row was a young man who told the panelists he’d recently travelled to a region with the Zika virus, had been bitten by mosquitos, and asked if he should be worried about being infected. The panelists explained he shouldn’t be concerned for himself, but he does need to be cautious if he’s sexually active.
Eighty percent of adults who catch the Zika virus don’t develop any symptoms and usually never know they had the disease. An unlucky minority who aren’t asymptomatic temporarily develop a fever, rashes, joint paint, and pink eye, but the virus isn’t life-threatening. Becoming ill after getting infected can at least make a person aware of the danger they pose to the unborn; the Zika virus can cause heartbreaking and deadly malformations in a developing infant’s brain and overall central nervous. Zika will survive in a man’s reproductive organs for two to four months, so if he has sex, it can transmit itself to someone else; women can’t transfer the virus during sex.
Primarily, mosquitos spread Zika by biting someone infected with the virus and then biting someone else, but the virus has a short lifespan in our bloodstream, two days at most. The little pests likely spread this disease from Africa or Asia, the original homes of Zika, to South America where it’s become a real menace. Fortunately only two types of mosquitos have the anatomy needed to circulate the virus from their digestive tract to their salivary gland, neither of which survive in New Hampshire, so we shouldn’t worry about Zika becoming endemic here.
Is it possible the virus could mutate? This was posed to the panel and made the experts squirm in their seats. It’s possible, Dr. Noble stated, but he compared its likelihood with his odds of winning the Powerball. While there are no absolutes in science, there are currently no signs the virus is mutating since it reached South America. During the Ebola epidemic, speculation by an expert that the virus could mutate into an airborne pathogen led to pointless panic when a real crisis needed everyone’s focus.
Instead of worrying about hypothetical mutations, countries with Zika need to safeguard blood supplies because people can contract the virus if they receive a transfusion containing infected blood. Pregnant women need to know to avoid Zika infected regions because of the risk to their developing child, but all men and women who visit these regions could become carriers. Avoid making babies during a trip to one of these regions and men need to abstain for months. Even with the Olympics coming up in Rio, because just a few types of mosquitos can pass Zika and the virus can only be passed from person to person for a short amount of time, it’s unlikely the virus will become a problem
With fears of Zika subdued but a general nervousness still in the room, an older gentleman addressed the panel and asked, why he’d never heard of this virus until recently and if more diseases will just pop-up from nowhere? They explained that a paradox of gaining scientific knowledge is as we learn more and become better prepared for what’s out there, we feel like there’s suddenly more out there because we’re aware of it now. Discovering a new disease today can lead to the creation of a vaccine tomorrow, but the idea of a new threat can infect people and be more afflicting than if they’d actually become host to the newly discovered organism.