Mosquito-borne diseases are responsible for the death of over one million people each year. Declared as an international public health emergency by the World Health Organization, the Zika virus has dominated recent headlines, but there are many other mosquito-borne diseases we must continue to focus on as we increase efforts to fight Zika.
Zika is a virus that is spread to humans through the bite of the Aedes mosquito, which is also the mosquito known to spread dengue and yellow fever. At first it was found to be very mild with few deaths, but researchers are now exploring a link between this recent outbreak and microcephaly (small heads) in newborn babies. Although Zika is especially dangerous for unborn babies, most adults and children only get flu-like symptoms. Prior to 2014, Zika was not found in the Americas, but following an outbreak in Brazil it has been spreading throughout Central and South America. While we must work to control the Zika virus, as the World Health Organization has suggested that we could see an increase in 3 to 4 million infections in the next year, we must also continue prevention and elimination efforts for other mosquito-borne diseases.
The deadliest mosquito-transmitted disease is malaria, which the Reform Jewish community has committed to fighting through a partnership with the UN Foundation’s Nothing But Nets Campaign since 2007. Although malaria is also spread through the bite of a mosquito, there are many differences between Zika and malaria. Malaria, caused by a blood parasite that can live in both mosquitos and humans, is transmitted by the Anopheles mosquito. Over half the World’s population is at risk for malaria, which caused 214 million cases and 438,000 deaths in 2015.
Unlike the Anopheles (malaria) mosquitos which only bite at night, the Aedes (Zika) mosquito bites at all times during the day and therefore insecticide treated bed nets are not effective for Zika as they are for malaria. The World Health Organization estimates that 6.2 million malaria deaths have been averted since 2001 due to increased methods of control, prevention and treatment. The best way to prevent Zika virus is by reducing breeding ground for mosquitos and reducing human-mosquito contact.
Although it is important to address public health emergencies, most recently Ebola and now Zika, we must also remember the importance of efforts to fight diseases that cause continuous public health concerns. In his most recent State of the Union address President Obama called for an end to malaria and furthered that commitment last week when he increased malaria prevention funding in his fiscal year 2017 budget. Reducing the burden of malaria on communities and health care systems throughout the world allows countries greater ability to react to other health outbreaks such as Zika virus.
Our Jewish values teach us, “It is not upon you to finish the work, but you are not free to ignore it” (Mishna, Ethics, 2:21). But this is a unique case where we can finish the work, and we know that with enough investment, we have the ability to eliminate deaths due to malaria in our lifetime. Therefore, we must urge Congress to robustly support the life-saving work of the President’s Malaria Initiative and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.