The influenza outbreak in 1918 infected 500 million people worldwide and killed between 50-100 million. The outbreak did not commence in Spain but that country’s press was the first to go public with the news, the other affected countries having initially censored their press to avoid panic.
The flu quickly became pandemic when soldiers returned home after the end of the First World War in 1918. No-one was safe as the causative H1N1 virus affected young healthy people too, not just children, the infirm or the aged. The H1N1 virus was also responsible for the pandemic outbreak of “Swine Flu” in 2009. It is said that the Spanish Flu killed more people in 24 days than AIDS killed in 24 years!
Infection with the Zika virus (ZIKV) causes a mild illness BUT the side-effects thus far are microcephaly in developing foetuses and Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS). GBS is caused by a cytokine storm response in the human body after an infection, as well as after vaccinations. With GBS your body’s immune system destroys the myelin sheath covering nerve axons. I was a very healthy and active person when I developed GBS in 2013, a week after a mild 24-hour bout of gastro-enteritis. I am still partially paralysed. Please read my blog for more info on this.
The incidence of GBS is not as rare as the media is saying it is. There are no statistics for South Africa, but stats for the USA are 1:100,000 and 1:40,000 develop it annually in the UK (1,623 in one year/4.44 people every day). Even babies can develop GBS. Approximately 5% of people afflicted by GBS will die, 80% will recover fully, and 15% will have lasting disabilities that range from mild to severe. The added problem is that up to 5% of all those afflicted may relapse at least once in their lifetime.
And here’s the problem if ZIKV spreads to pandemic proportions:
- Although some babies with microcephaly will develop normally, others may experience delayed development, seizures and/or mental retardation.
- People who develop GBS as a side-effect of ZIKV (incidences may be as low as 1% of people who were infected by ZIKV) may be bread-winners, and any form of short-term or long-term paralysis could be catastrophic for that family. Also, the recovery rate from severe GBS is proportionate to the ability to access high-care services as well as therapeutic services during recovery, i.e. physiotherapy and occupational therapy. Surviving GBS in an under-developed country will be difficult.
Imagining 1% can be difficult and it may seem insignificant, but let’s play with the numbers. Brazil’s population is about 200,000,000. If 1% are infected by ZIKV (2,000,000) and 1% of those develop GBS (20,000), that amounts to potentially 1,000 deaths and 3,000 disabled people. Increase the estimate to 5% ZIKV infections – with 1% developing GBS – and the figures rise to 5,000 deaths and 15,000 disabled people.
And you don’t need to be bitten by a mosquito to contract ZIKV. There is evidence that it can also be transmitted via blood, saliva, urine and semen. Last Monday, the WHO declared ZIKV a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern”. Scientists are genetically engineering mosquitoes in an attempt to eradicate the virus, and work is being done to develop an effective vaccine. A world-wide roll-out of both will take time.
In the meanwhile, everyone travelling to South America needs to take precautions. Your grandma was right: prevention IS better than cure. There will be a lot of people in Brazil this year for the Olympic Games. Don’t let ZIKV spread like the Spanish Flu did. Don’t bring ZIKV home with you.