Hopefully by this time next year, there will be a vaccine for the Zika virus. If not ready for use, at least under development in a lab somewhere.
But even if everything goes perfectly in the struggle against a new infectious disease, Zika will have long-term impacts, everywhere from Brazil to Florida.
The virus originated in Africa decades ago, is carried by mosquitoes, and doesn’t seem to have terrible effects on the vast majority of people it infects. Most don’t even develop symptoms, and those who do typically recover.
The problem is that Zika has been lineked – tentatively – to microcephaly in infants whose mothers were infected with Zika.
Microcephaly is a sometimes-severe and lifelong condition. Brazil reported more than 2,700 cases of microcephaly in 2015 compared to between 140 and 170 in the previous two years.
Officials in several Central and South American countries have already warned women against getting pregnant for now. El Salvador is urging women to put off pregnancy for two years. Even Pope Francis has suggested that using contraception is a “lesser evil” than abortion when it comes to preventing the spread of the virus and its effects on fetal development.
And it’s not just South America that will be affected. The Zika virus is likely to become endemic in parts of the Southern United States, particularly Florida and other areas along the Gulf of Mexico. During the warm months, the Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries the virus can spread north into much of the south-eastern U.S., reaching almost, but not quite, into Canada.
There are two big impacts that are potentially facing affected countries.
The first is aiding the developmentally disabled children affected by the virus. In most countries, including the U.S., the affected families will be mostly lower-income. Poor people have less access to things like mosquito netting and bug repellent, and they have a lot less choice in whether or not they live near a fetid swamp.
There will have to be a lot of government aid to help those kids.
Second, and running far into the future, there will be deeply weird demographic effects from this virus.
Over the next couple of years, many people are going to delay having children.
So, until we get either a vaccine or some massive and effective mosquito control efforts, we’re going to see a decrease in births across large parts of Latin America, the Caribbean, and parts of the United States.
Even assuming everything bounces right back to normal in two years, that’s a big demographic change. In five or six years, many countries will be looking at half-empty classrooms in some grades.
And then after the vaccine… well, there may be a baby boom, as some parents have the kids they were putting off. So the empty classrooms will be followed by overcrowded ones.
If it’s just two years, the impact will be relatively small. But if it drags on for three, four, five years, it will have a major impact. It will affect the economic future, for good or ill, of a dozen countries. It will change government spending and affect the way many people see global warming.
That final point is important. Zika is a virus that spread from Africa, on invasive mosquitoes. And it can move farther north the warmer things get. It’s hard to ignore global warming when it directly affects the health of your kids or grandkids.