Award-Winning Science Journalist Discusses Zika and Epidemics at UMD

By Tori Tanner

International health epidemics have been a source of media coverage for decades.

Laurie Garrett, an award-winning science journalist, author and Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations, spoke to University of Maryland faculty, staff and students at a lecture on Oct. 17 about epidemics and global public health.

Garrett’s talk focused on the evolution of epidemics and life expectancy over the past 200 years. She explained life expectancy has gone up because of measles and small pox vaccines, which helped to drastically decrease child mortality.

When it comes to epidemics spreading across developing and developed nations, “There’s a shared risk, but not shared benefits,” she said.

Garrett noted that the 2014 Ebola outbreak—the third in history–was much more severe than the second outbreak in 1995.  It was also the first urbanized Ebola outbreak and affected the three largest East African cities.

“There was not a sense it was a problem for the world, until there was an isolated case in Dallas, Texas,” Garrett said, noting that the global aviation network has contributed significantly to the spread of epidemics.

When the first Ebola case was diagnosed in the United States, more people demanded government action to combat the virus.

“Our epidemic is an epidemic of fear, not Ebola,” she said.

Garrett went through a timeline of the 2014 Ebola outbreak explaining how it spread from healthcare facilities to villages. She explained that it took scientists time to discover that fatalities of the disease were far more contagious–five days after death–than in living sufferers of the disease.  Consequently the virus was being spread at local funerals.

When Garrett transitioned the lecture to focus on Zika, she broke down the history of the virus.  She explained it was first discovered in 1947 and since then the outbreaks had not been life threatening or caused birth affects until recently.

The mosquitos carrying the virus traveled from Africa to Brazil during the slave trade. Eventually, the disease made its way from Africa eastward to South America.

It was seen in South Asia and the Pacific Islands including Polynesia, before arriving in Brazil. Interestingly, the same pattern of dispersal was seen with yellow fever, dengue and chikungunya.

The Brazilian government declared a public health emergency in February 2016, given the drastic increase in the number of babies born with misshaped skulls from microcephaly.  Of course there was also international concern as well, given that Brazil was to be the host nation for the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

Garrett showed images of misshapen infant skulls with large calcium deposits and explained many of these babies suffered from hearing loss, huge visual field problems, joint dislocation, hyper flexing and clubfeet.

She then went further into what the Zika virus targets and how it transmits from mothers to children.

“It also seems to be behaving like an STD,” Garrett said of Zika, which has been transmitted from one adult to another.

Garret focused the end of her lecture on funding difficulties to fight and research epidemic viruses as well the complications certain diseases present.

She explained that it took the U.S. Congress 251 days from the point that President Barak Obama initially requested emergency funding to research-combat Zika, until the money was finally allocated.

Garret also noted the many complications surrounding a virus like Zika, including testing vaccines on pregnant women, researching the long term effects on babies and developing tests to predict fetal infection.

In closing, Garrett addressed the issue of natural disasters and the outbreak of infectious disease.  The aftermath of Hurricane Matthew for example, could present an uncertain future for the people of Haiti.  After the January 2010 earthquake the country became overwhelmed by Cholera, killing more than 10,000 people. Garrett said only time would tell if Zika would infiltrate the Haitian population the way Cholera did in 2010.