Steve Rose

Steve Rose: Close encounter at ground zero for the Zika virus

Hotels and apartment buildings line the Copacabana beach shore in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The head of a sports travel agency specializing in packages for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympics said that the company’s business could be devastated if the Zika virus, or rumors about it, continue to spread. “It could be catastrophic,” said Jerri Roush, executive vice president of Cartan Tours.
Hotels and apartment buildings line the Copacabana beach shore in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The head of a sports travel agency specializing in packages for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympics said that the company’s business could be devastated if the Zika virus, or rumors about it, continue to spread. “It could be catastrophic,” said Jerri Roush, executive vice president of Cartan Tours. The Associated Press

I have a lot of respect for mosquitoes.

Many years ago, one of those pesky insects put me in the hospital for several weeks in Vietnam with a painful bout of encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain that can kill.

So mosquitoes really caught my attention recently when our cruise ship docked in Recife, Brazil.

I knew next to nothing about the poverty-stricken seaside city of 3 million inhabitants, except for the infamous notoriety as the murder capital of the world.

But the morning we arrived, The New York Times blared in an online headline another dubious distinction for Recife: “Bewilderment at Center of Zika Crisis.”

The dateline was Recife and the story began: “So many distraught mothers stream into the infant ward clutching babies with abnormally small heads that the receptionist sends them outside, to see if they can find a chair to wait under the mango tree.”

The Zika virus is a mosquito-transmitted infection that began spreading in the Western hemisphere. The main outbreak was in Brazil. (There also have been extremely rare cases where the virus was transmitted by sexual contract and saliva.)

And it turns out that poverty-sticken Recife is ground zero for the Zika virus.

We were to spend the day on tour at the very place where the Zika virus is the most prevalent, anywhere. Great luck, huh?

You might wonder what the ship’s captain might have had to say about this unfortunate coincidence.

The short answer: Nothing.

There had been plenty of warnings about yellow fever, especially during our trip down the Amazon River. But the Zika virus did not apparently merit a mention, even though most of our cruise would be along the coast of Brazil, where 4,000 cases of the virus have been reported since October.

That, of course, was then. Now, the Zika virus has been declared a global emergency. I would imagine that a month from now, there will be all kinds of warnings on cruises to Brazil and other tropical destinations.

The irony of this is, based on everything I have read, there is virtually no likelihood that any passenger on our ship was at risk. The median age of the ship’s passengers was on the older side — well, let’s just say some decades beyond the days of pregnancy.

The virus is almost exclusively dangerous to newborns. As we have all probably read by now, specialists are racing to understand the connection between Zika and microcephaly cases, where babies are born with brain damage and unusually small heads.

An adult who is infected with the virus suffers no symptoms in 80 percent of the cases, and in the remaining cases, where there is fever, rash and joint pain, there is no lasting harm. That information, however, seems to be changing daily. Just last week, both Brazil and Venezuela reported deaths among at least two adults that were thought to have been caused by the Zika virus.

The World Health Organization warned the disease is spreading “explosively” in the Americas, where 4 million could be infected by year’s end.

For pregnant women, or women who are thinking of becoming pregnant, this is a nightmare.

There is no known treatment, no vaccine as of yet.

Just since returning home, I have heard of one friend’s daughter who is having second thoughts about a Caribbean cruise. Another’s daughter canceled a trip to Florida.

This may be taking the fear to an extreme. But I cannot be critical. This disease is very scary.

We’ll be watching how this all unfolds from our home in non-tropical Kansas, where the kind of mosquitoes that spread this disease does not breed.

In the meantime, we would be very concerned if our daughters traveled to Brazil or other tropical spots in the Americas. An epidemic like this must be taken seriously.

Steve Rose, longtime Johnson County columnist: srose@kc.rr.com

  Comments