With the Zika virus sweeping across the Americas and the number of birth defects in Brazil on the rise, a top Brazilian researcher is comparing the Zika pandemic to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.
“The challenge for the scientific and medical community is comparable to what happened when we first knew about the outbreak of the HIV infection,” said Dr. Wilson Savino, director of Fiocruz, one of Brazil’s oldest and most respected health care institutions. “Every day, there is something new because it is a huge outbreak with very little scientific knowledge.”
National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has played a key role in the decades-long search for an HIV vaccine, agrees the evolving Zika outbreak is similar in some respects.
“In the very beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic,” Fauci told CNN, “it was virgin territory and very difficult to decipher what was going on. As we learned more about it, we were able to address it better.”
One of the challenges facing the scientific community in the Zika outbreak is the need for better, more accurate tests to detect the virus. Because Zika is a member of the same viral family as dengue fever and West Nile, two diseases that are widespread in Latin America, similar antibodies could be in the bloodstream of many of those tested. That can lead to many false readings, slowing clinical response.
“The test might turn out to be positive because I was infected with Zika, with dengue or even both,” explained Fauci.
The only way to know whether the current infection is truly Zika is to grow the sample in a culture, a time-consuming process available in only a few key laboratories in the United States and Brazil. That too, hinders the ability of doctors to assist patients quickly and efficiently.
“What we’re all trying to do is in one test is determine is it Zika, and is it Zika alone,” said Fauci. “We don’t have those tests yet, but we’re trying to develop them.”
In collaboration with the NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Savino said he is leading efforts at Fiocruz to develop just such a serological test to detect Zika antibodies in mothers and the babies born with microcephaly and hopes to have the tests in place by the end of the year.
“The scientific community of the world is much more prepared to work together very rapidly in order to cope with huge health situations,” Savino said. “So we are actually building up most of the knowledge that we need to comprehend and to control the disease.”
A fearful public
Another way the current Zika outbreak can be compared to the history of HIV/AIDS is in the growing sense of alarm among U.S. residents. In a Facebook chat Thursday with CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, many of the participants expressed a thirst for more knowledge:
— “How long will the virus stay in your system — the rest of your life?” asked Erika T.
— “Couldn’t the virus lower birth rates?” asked Matthew L.
— “Can Zika be transmitted through blood?” Arseniu A. wanted to know.
— “Can animals be infected, like my dog or cat?” inquired Aileen G.
— “How come AIDS can’t be passed through mosquitoes but this virus can?” Brannon S asked.
— “How can we protect ourselves? Will mosquito repellent be enough?” asked Thorns R.
“When there are many unknowns, there is a lot of fear and concern in the community,” said Fauci. “That’s exactly what we are seeing now with Zika.”
That public reaction seems to driving a quicker response than what happened in response to HIV, says JD Davids, managing editor of TheBody.com, an online HIV/AIDS resource.
“The global HIV epidemic was allowed to escalate without anything near an appropriate scientific and medical response for decades,” said Davids, “largely due to the marginalized social status of so many who were affected, including gay people, drug users and people of color.”
On Thursday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in four affected counties: Miami-Dade, Lee, Hillsborough and Santa Rosa. There have been a total of 12 cases of Zika reported in Florida; all among people who obtained the virus while traveling to countries hard hit by the virus.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida quickly followed with a letter to President Barack Obama calling for a “Zika czar.”
“To help curb the spread of this virus here at home, I strongly urge you to appoint a point person to coordinate the federal government’s comprehensive response,” Nelson wrote.