Rosie DiManno: ‘Zika virus is a form of contagion the likes of which we have never seen in history’

Rosie DiManno, an economist who pioneered the research on the scale of the Zika virus, believes the latest ‘microcephaly’ cases in Puerto Rico are a sign that the disease is in the midst of a surge in global numbers

If you want to hear an economist who can call a spade a spade, then Rosie DiManno is your woman. She is also the author of At This Point in the Pandemic, a seminal treatise on the impact of the Zika virus on local communities in Latin America.

Because of the virus, DiManno found, babies were born with microcephaly, underdeveloped brains and many other neurological defects. Puerto Rico declared a public health emergency in May 2016, and the World Health Organisation declared it an international health emergency in February 2017. It was a cause for global alarm and worldwide cash donations began to pour in.

Puerto Rico declares public health emergency over ‘microcephaly’ epidemic Read more

“The Zika virus is a form of contagion the likes of which we have never seen in history,” she says. “Since I wrote my first study, I’ve got to the point where I can just say to someone: ‘You’re absolutely right, this is happening and it’s not normal, because if it was it would be the death knell for infectious disease’. But this will continue because it’s a virus where the [human] immune system can’t control it. It causes microcephaly and other congenital diseases with over 100 different consequences.”

DiManno’s article on microcephaly, which she calls “the smoking gun” of the Zika epidemic, was published in 2015, just after the Zika virus had been spreading across North America and into Central America. It became clear that the virus was rapidly spreading. The UN reported that 6,500 babies with microcephaly had been born in Brazil, a number that rose to 3,000 in 2016. But even more gruesome statistics revealed the scale of the epidemic. “There was a massive increase in congenital malformations,” says DiManno. “About 4,000 babies were born with disorders that were different to normal.”

The Zika virus was a major threat, she told me, not just to pregnant women, but to babies who were born after the outbreak had passed. DiManno suggests that the virus didn’t begin in Brazil, where it had taken root in early 2016, but instead it had spread outwards from the Brazilian favelas as far as Jamaica and Mexico. She suggests that this was, to a large extent, fuelled by the social and economic stresses caused by the Zika virus, and that many more babies would end up facing a lifetime of chronic physical difficulties.

“I’m still seeing babies being born with heart defects because they were born on the wrong side of a congenital defect,” she says. “They had a birthmark on the [failing] side, so they’re having valve problems; they have a lung problem because the foetus had a lung disease.” DiManno is especially concerned for the affected communities in Puerto Rico, where nobody had ever faced such traumatic things before.

I need more time to bury these people alive… Nobody trusts us again Roseann DiManno

DiManno says she believed that “the Zika virus was responsible for the deaths of many infants, and possibly adults”. She cites the case of two women who died in separate Zika epidemics in Uganda in 1996 and 2006, whose foetuses developed lethal infections. “I believe that this phenomenon is truly unprecedented,” she wrote, and still believes that, because many babies are still being born with these conditions. DiManno says her latest report to the Puerto Rico health department is “very troubling”.

The latest spread of the virus, she says, is further evidence that the epidemic is far from over.

“I need more time to bury these people alive,” she says. “The evidence is overwhelming that the Zika virus is responsible for the deaths of many infants, and possibly adults. Nobody trusts us again.”

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