When Epidemics Turn Endemic

By Laurie Breen


In 2016 the Zika virus epidemic dominated medical news headlines, especially with the drama that played out when some health experts called for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro to be cancelled. But by September WHO officials announced that there had been no confirmed Zika cases coming out of the Olympic games among visitors or athletes and on November 18th the WHO ended Zika’s designation as a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.”


However, when diseases are no longer drawing the urgent attention of the public or the media, the interest in funding research dies out too. In December, the WHO issued a Report to Donors that highlighted the need for continued funding to seek answers to remaining questions on the Zika outbreak and its ongoing effects.



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In a JAMA Viewpoint article, Catharine I. Paules, MD and Anthony S. Fauci, MD, the Director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), draw a comparison between Zika and to two other recent mosquito-borne epidemics that have become boring old endemic diseases – West Nile Virus and Chikungunya.


According to the authors, West Nile first appeared in 1999 with cases reported in New York. There was surge in diagnoses in 2002 as the virus spread throughout the United States, but as the rate of infection flattened out, public interest also waned. Like Zika, most cases of West Nile are asymptomatic but 20% of patients may develop serious symptoms with ongoing effects, such as increased risk of developing chronic kidney disease. Paules and Fauci report that the NIAID even developed a vaccine through phase 1 trials, but the project died when the NIAID couldn’t find a funding partner due to lack of interest.



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Chikungunya was another virus that had a rash of interest in 2013 – 2014. Although several vaccines are currently in development, the long-term risks of Chikungunya are largely unknown. Without fervent public interest, the significant funding needed for large long-term studies can be hard to lock down.


Zika was actually discovered in 1947, but it wasn’t until the virus began to spread rapidly through South America and into the U.S. in 2015 that there was significant attention to this disease. As with West Nile and Chikungunya, Zika is an ongoing threat primarily for its potential for serious complications. Although the crisis may be over for Zika, on-going research is needed to address the long-term effects of this and other mosquito-borne viruses because they are here to stay.


Check out these other Recent Epidemics around the world.


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Laurie Breen

Laurie Breen is a freelance writer well-versed in research communications and grant writing. She received her Bachelors Degree in Psychology from Smith College and has worked previously at the University of Queensland's Centre for Clinical Research in Brisbane, Australia. Her favorite conversational topic is "antibiotic-resistant bacteria," making her a big hit at parties.