CBS’s 60 Minutes Features the Fight Against Zika

On the November 6th edition of CBS’s 60 Minutes, Dr. Jon LaPook spoke with the country’s top scientists about the fight against Zika and the U.S. government’s efforts to control it.

I can’t speak for others in the public health field, but I was happy to see some national coverage of the current Zika epidemic. At the same time, I struggle with the lack of attention and general dismissal the virus gets from the majority of people who aren’t directly impacted. When it comes to Zika, we need to change the ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ mentality many have now and focus more on public outreach and education.

People don’t take it seriously. They tend to say, well, I’m not seeing anything so it must not be happening, or you don’t know someone who has had a microcephalic baby, yet.  Yet. (Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of infectious disease at the National Institutes of Health)

With just under 15 minutes of airtime, 60 Minutes did a good job of highlighting the hot ticket items such as Zika-related birth defects, sexual transmission, vaccine development, and risk to pregnancy. But as obstetrician Dr. Alberto De la Vega said, “when it comes to Zika, every conversation includes a question mark.” There are still so many unknowns, including:

  • What long-term developmental defects might we see in Zika-affected newborns?
  • How frequently is sexual transmission occurring?
  • How effective will a Zika vaccine be?

Only time and research will answer these questions. As Drs. LaPook and De la Vega discussed, we will likely see a spectrum of diseases associated with Zika, from hearing loss, seizures, vision troubles, and severely underdeveloped brains in newborns to central nervous system disorders in adults.

Despite the well-rounded coverage, there were two important areas that I don’t think received the attention they deserved.

1. Human Travel

When you have a transmissible agent and people travel…that’s exactly how the infection got to Florida. The mosquito didn’t fly from Rio de Janeiro to Florida. The mosquito flies 500 feet in a lifetime. It’s the people who travel. (Dr. Anthony Fauci)

While 60 Minutes highlighted the potential for infected individuals returning to the U.S. mainland to spread the virus to uninfected mosquitoes, they didn’t focus on the risk of spreading the virus via sexual transmission—something that should be considered, particularly over the winter when mosquitoes are few and far between in most parts of the country.

2. Conflicting Advice to Women of Child-bearing Age

Dr. De la Vega recommended that women should avoid getting pregnant in Puerto Rico, or any place the infection is occurring, at least until we have a vaccine or control over this epidemic. But, a few minutes later, it was reported that the U.S. government is not recommending women delay pregnancy.

The United States government is not recommending that women delay pregnancy. It has largely focused on killing the mosquitoes that carry the virus. But that may not be enough: Zika has stunned scientists by becoming the first mosquito-borne virus ever known to be transmitted through sex. (Dr. Jon LaPook, 60 Minutes Correspondent)

Being a female of child-bearing age, this left me a bit unnerved and with more questions than answers. Perhaps this was taken out of context or was just a matter of semantics, as the CDC does suggest timeframes for couples to wait before trying to get pregnant if there was possible exposure to Zika via travel or unprotected sex.[1] Ultimately though, the decision to get pregnant isn’t a decision the government or doctors can control, and it is up to each individual to take preventative measures to reduce their risk of contracting and spreading Zika.

Despite all the unanswered questions and the need for more research, 60 Minutes is commended for airing this segment to share what we do know and how important it is to keep asking questions about the Zika virus.


Author: Dr. Jenn Kruk, Molecular Biologist, IEM

For full coverage CBS’s 60 Minutes “The Zika Virus,” which aired on Nov. 6, 2016, click here.