Tiger Mosquito
19 July 2016

Experts Hope Zika Scare Boosts Birth Defect Research

“Birth defects are not high on the public-health agenda,” according to vaccine researcher Stanley Plotkin, who spoke with Nature recently.

Plotkin, who developed a vaccine against rubella in the 1970s, is right. The US government’s lack of commitment to preventing, or even understanding, birth defects is obvious. Just follow the money. America’s 2015 budget for health research allocated only 0.002% of its $66 billion total to birth defect research – despite the fact that congenital abnormalities contribute to more infant deaths than any other cause.

That’s a little over $1.3 million. Obviously, birth defects just aren’t a priority.

Will Focus On Zika Raise Awareness For Other Birth Defects?

The Zika virus, on the other hand, is still blockbuster news – for perfectly understandable reasons. The idea of a pathogen spread by mosquitos that causes severe brain defects is terrifying.

Mosquito

We should be worried about this and, judging by the government’s initiative to stop the virus, we are worried about it. President Obama has asked for about $1.9 billion in funding to research and control the spread of the Zika Virus. Roughly, that’s 146,053% more funding than was set aside for the entirety of birth defect research in 2015.

It’s unlikely that Congress will actually answer Obama’s call in full. NBC News says that a Republican-led counter-offer of $1.1 billion was turned down because it included cuts to Planned Parenthood. But we can’t be blind to the enormous disparity between how much policy leaders are willing to fund Zika research, and how little they’re willing to commit to birth defects in general.

A Virus With Similar Results, But Far Less Visibility

Stanley Plotkin is not entirely discouraged, though. In fact, the researcher calls Zika “an opportunity.” Plotkin is currently concerned about cytomegalovirus, a virus the effects of which are strikingly similar to Zika. The virus, often shortened to CMV, can be transmitted to a fetus through saliva or breast milk, leading to severe birth defects, including the abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains that are characteristic of microcephaly.

Cytomegalovirus kills dozens, if not hundreds, of newborns every year, and leaves thousands with permanent hearing loss and intellectual disabilities. Around 30,000 kids are born every year with congenital CMV, and about 1 in 5 of those children will ultimately develop life-long health problems. Zika, on the other hand, is “rarely” transmitted from mother to child, as noted by the CDC.

At this point, CMV is far more widespread than Zika. It also disproportionately affects Native Americans and African Americans, according to researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Despite the troubling facts around cytomegalovirus, no one’s heard of it. In 2012, a survey of 4,184 people found that only 7% of men and 13% of men had even heard of congenital cytomegalovirus.

Why Do We Care More About Zika?

“The psychology of humans is to be reactive rather than proactive,” Gail Demmler-Harrison, a cytomegalovirus researcher in Texas, told Quartz. “If there’s an outbreak such as with Zika or Ebola, people react and there’s a lot of interest.”

It’s not just public interest that gets fired by sudden, and shocking, outbreaks of birth defects. Researchers have a much easier time pinning down causal associations when congenital abnormalities surge in relation to some other factor, like mosquito movement.

Less interest is paid to birth defect risks that remain constant over time. Without a spike in the number of cases, or a clear cause to point at, we quickly forget that lives are being cut short and families left in grief. Without smoke, there’s no fire.