Following a warning from the World Health Organization that the mosquito-borne Zika virus is likely to spread to all countries across the Americas except for Canada and Chile, the U.S. director of National Institutes of Health (NIH) on Tuesday called for intensified efforts to study the link between Zika infections and birth defects in infants.
In a blog post, Dr. Francis Collins cited a new study in the journal The Lancet, in which infectious disease modelers calculate that the virus has the potential to spread across warmer and wetter parts of the Western Hemisphere as local mosquitoes pick up the virus from infected travelers and then spread the virus to other people.
"The study suggests that Zika virus could eventually reach regions of the United States in which 60 percent of our population lives," Collins wrote. "This highlights the need for NIH and its partners in the public and private sectors to intensify research on Zika virus and to look for new ways to treat the disease and prevent its spread."
Since November, Brazil has seen nearly 4,000 cases of microcephaly—a neurological condition in which the head is very small because of an abnormally developed brain—in babies born to women who were infected with Zika during their pregnancies. So far, 46 babies have died. There were only 146 such cases in 2014.
As CNN reports, "Other Latin American countries are now seeing cases in newborns as well, while in the United States one Hawaiian baby was born with microcephaly after his mother returned from Brazil. In Illinois, two pregnant women who traveled to Latin America have tested positive for the virus; health officials are monitoring their pregnancies."
And on Tuesday, the Arkansas Department of Health said a person who recently traveled out of the United States has tested positive for the Zika virus.
Meanwhile, authorities in Brazil, Colombia, Jamaica, El Salvador, and Venezuela were urging women to avoid getting pregnant altogether.
"Think about that," environmentalist and 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben wrote at the Guardian on Monday. "Women should avoid the most essential and beautiful of human tasks. It is unthinkable. Or rather, it is something out of a science fiction story, the absolute core of a dystopian future."
Warning of "an emerging epidemiological apartheid," McKibben argued the Zika outbreak—which has been blamed at least in part on climate change—is evidence that "we need to face up to the fact that pushing the limits of the planet’s ecology has become dangerous in novel ways."