2016's Virus Scare

In 2014, Ebola fears were the all the rage. But with the disease more or less petering out as a current pandemic, it’s faded as a source of major concern.

Not to worry. We now have a new infectious disease to worry about. It’s called the Zika virus — and it’s been in headline after headline recently. Ebola is old and busted. Zika is the new hotness.

Like Ebola, Zika has been largely confined to the tropics. There is also a geography to each virus’ name. Ebola is named for a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Zika, a forest in Uganda.

But there are differences. Ebola requires some sort of contact with an infected person — especially bodily fluids. Zika, on the other hand, is spread by various species of mosquitos.

Another difference is that Ebola infection is often deadly. Zika, with its flu-like symptoms and rash, isn’t. People usually recover after a few days.

However, infection from this virus has been associated with damage to the nervous system from an autoimmune condition called Guillain-Barré syndrome. And even worse, if a pregnant woman is infected, there is a possibility her child could be born with a condition called microcephaly — a small head and an underdeveloped brain.

Right now the disease has reached pandemic proportions in countries like Brazil, and cases of Guillain-Barré and microcephaly have been increasing. Other tropical countries in our hemisphere are going so far as to recommend women not get pregnant until 2018 — hopefully, the outbreak will be over by then.

Disease Outbreak

Photo credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The World Health Organization says Zika is “spreading explosively.” And it’s possible the disease could spread to the U.S. It’s especially concerning in a place like Florida. With our hot climate, where walking through wooded areas during rainy season is like swimming through a cloud of buzzing “swamp angels,” I could see this disease taking root. Fortunately, we are more likely to live with air conditioning and window screens than poorer countries in our hemisphere are.

What would make Zika much harder to contain is the way it spreads. Doing so might require radical mosquito control efforts. Unfortunately, one of the best mosquito control agents ever invented, DDT, has been banned in many parts of the world for decades. In the mid-20th century, it was used to eradicate malaria in large areas of the planet. Most countries don’t use it anymore because of perceived environmental impacts. I guess some people figure it’s better for the planet to allow millions of people to die.

In 2014, the Ebola panic did drive up the valuation of a select group of biotechnology stocks…

It’s possible we could see a repeat if Zika continues to draw attention.

To a bright future,

Ray Blanco
for the Daily Reckoning