What the Zika Virus Means for the Future of Public Health

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Given the increase in Zika-related microcephaly and infant mortality, doctors are advising that pregnant and potentially child-bearing women avoid traveling to threatened areas, and if they live in areas already exposed to outbreak, that they even consider delaying pregnancy. What does the spread of the Zika virus mean for the continuing care of affected babies, and how will potential population dips affect public healthcare?

Immediate Health Costs

There is conflicting evidence whether the congenital defect is a result of the virus itself, or the faulty measures taken to prevent its spread. Although it’s hard to predict exactly what aggregate costs of combating Zika will be, it can be compared to another mosquito-borne illness: dengue fever. In 2013, dengue cost the global economy $8.9 billion both in patient care plus the cost of lost time and productivity. Developing countries were hit the hardest, bearing the majority of 58.4 million victims. Fathers of children born with microcephaly are increasingly abandoning their families because of the heavy responsibilities and high cost of care creating further financial hardship.

Population Dip

U.S. health officials have warned pregnant women or women who may get pregnant not to travel, and women living in heavily exposed areas to delay getting pregnant.  It is reasonable to expect a population anomaly as a result of this.  Fewer babies being born may mean fewer future adults requiring healthcare—but it also means fewer taxpayers and caregivers to help provide care for the disabled adults that babies afflicted with microcephaly will become.

Economic Loss

As devastating as these findings are, they do not account for the economic loss of decreased tourism. Health officials in several countries have already reported Zika infections in people returning from Latin America and the Caribbean, prompting the majority of travelers to look for destinations elsewhere. “When outbreaks occur, people stay away,” said Duane Gubler, an infectious-disease expert at Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore. Stocks of travel companies have already slumped since the CDC issued its warning to child-bearing women—comprising a minimum of 43% of seasonal and business travelers per year.

Long-Term Social Care

Babies born with microcephaly require physical, speech and occupational therapy as children, in addition to medications for seizures and convulsions. Healthcare costs also accrue from additional physical complications. Microcephalic adults usually cannot live on their own, necessitating continuing caregiver or parental care. Additionally, caring for an adult child with developmental disabilities or mental illness increases the chances of an aging parent developing costly disabilities of their own by 38%, according to findings of a new study. This means that countries with already overburdened healthcare systems, exacerbated by a population dip and related economic hardship, will be caring for greater numbers of people from two separate generations simultaneously.