Healthify Blog

The Zika Virus

In the wake of the World Health Organization's designation of the Zika virus as a global public health emergency, governments around the world are expected to dramatically step up their efforts to curb the spread of the mosquito-borne disease.

The outbreak of the virus, which a WHO advisory panel said is "strongly suspected" of causing thousands of cases of brain defects known as microcephaly in newborns, began in Brazil last May and has since spread to more than 20 countries in Latin America, NYT and WAPO reported.

American officials have said that the virus does not pose a major threat to the United States, where mosquito control efforts are robust and effective.

Zika Virus

In the coming months, that aspect of the outbreak -- how effectively governments are able to control the carriers of the Zika virus -- will play an important role in assessing whether the international response is adequate.

One factor that will likely pose challenges to mosquito control in Zika-affected countries is the same factor that contributes to the poor health of millions of Americans, though it's often relegated to the margins of healthcare.

That would be poverty -- a social determinant of health and something that also contributed to the spread of Ebola in 2014.

Amy Y. Vittor, an assistant professor in medicine at the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute, opined in a NYT editorial that alleviating urban poverty will be key to tackling the Zika virus.

"Lack of running water and waste management, in conjunction with urban crowding and poor housing, has given rise to the perfect set of conditions for the transmission of such mosquito-borne viruses," she wrote.

Vittor went on to cite an example of how poverty makes a difference in how terrible outbreaks can get, citing a dengue outbreak in 2005 in contiguous cities on the Texas-Mexico border that resulted in the outbreak being eight times higher on the Mexico side than on the Texas side.

On the Mexico side, a backlog in water and waste management services; residents' infrequent access to running water leading them to store water in containers; and high population density heightened the outbreak's effect, she said.

Whether it's dealing with global public health emergencies like the Zika virus, or preventing heart disease and diabetes in underserved populations, social determinants of health like poverty, education and housing are topics that need to be considered in the overall picture of establishing healthy societies.

Topics: social determinants of health public health