The US Military Has Declared War on the Zika Virus
Policy + Politics

The US Military Has Declared War on the Zika Virus


It’s not as if Americans don’t have a growing menu of problems to worry about – from ISIS attacks to the effects of global warming. Now, add the Zika virus to the list as it impacts everything from the Olympics to the debate over abortion.

Most know that Zika is spread by mosquitoes that came from the Zika Forest of Uganda, where the virus was first detected nearly 70 years ago. The disease is related to dengue, yellow fever, encephalitis, and West Nile viruses, the latter breeding currently in New York City, New Jersey, and Long Island. Residents and lawmakers fear the mosquito that carries West Nile could also carry Zika, so communities are being notified about spraying schedules.

Related: The Senate Dithers Again as Zika Virus Continues to Spread

Meanwhile, the U.S. military is taking its own steps to prevent the virus from spreading rapidly throughout its own ranks and branches—especially in the hot zones of Latin America and Central America where U.S. military are deployed. As of now, 41 military members have contracted the virus including a pregnant female – a 273 percent increase in less than three months.

In May the DOD provided $1.76 million in additional financing to military laboratories to enhance Zika virus surveillance worldwide and examine "the virus’s impact on deployed service members’ health and readiness." (The DOD began tracking Zika cases back in January.)  

“The DOD is actively involved with other federal and private partners in the development of a candidate Zika vaccine,” a spokesperson said[JL1] . The Army recently partnered with French pharmaceutical firm Sanofi to co-develop a vaccine for the Zika virus. Walter Reed, a military biomedical research institute at DOD, will provide Sanofi with its purified inactivated virus vaccine technology. In return, the Paris-based drug maker will be responsible for managing human trials.

The DOD doesn't require personnel in affected areas to be tested for the virus; however, the CDC recommends all pregnant individuals be checked for potential Zika exposure. An infection can be confirmed by a blood or urine test. A healthcare provider may also order a blood test to look for other similar viruses like dengue or chikungunya.

Related: How to Protect Yourself From the Zika Virus

“Currently, testing of any individual is contingent on meeting the clinical symptomatology and epidemiological criteria for exposure as outlined in the CDC guidance,” the spokesperson noted. “The Department of Defense is supporting the interagency efforts to combat the Zika virus and mitigate its spread. Our scientists are supporting a whole-of-government effort, led by the Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC.”

The DOD has been taking the following actions to protect both military and civilian personnel, as well as their dependents from the virus: increased emphasis on education on personal protective measures; increased attention on mosquito surveillance and control; expanded diagnostic laboratory testing; and increased attention and preparedness in medical treatment facilities to screen, diagnose, and care for infected individuals.

Individuals infected with Zika will typically only have mild symptoms, if they have any at all. Lasting anywhere from several days to a few weeks, some of the most common symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis. Other symptoms include muscle pain and headache.

Despite the efforts of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the earliest a vaccine will become available is 2018, NIH Director Dr. Anthony Fauci said. Part of the NIH, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) last week began testing an investigational Zika vaccine in humans.

Related: Disease Target No 1: Stop Zika Before It Spreads Beyond Florida

“We are educating patients on risk of transmission, pregnancy, and other protective and preventive measures as we continue to work toward a safe and effective vaccine,” the DOD spokesperson said.  

Since Zika can result in potential birth defects, pregnant women have been the focus of concern. So why should the  nearly 85 percent of active duty men care?

First: If a man is infected, he can pass on the virus through semen, a blood transfusion or other bodily fluids. Unfortunately, researchers are unsure how long Zika remains in a man’s body. This is why the CDC recommends the use of condoms and other barriers to prevent the sexual transmission of Zika. It also suggests men wait six months after the onset of symptoms before trying to get a partner pregnant.

Second: Zika can cause Guillan-Barre syndrome, a rare disorder that attacks the nerves in the body. At its worst, Guillan-Barre can paralyze you and affect your ability to breathe. It can come on quickly and is considered a medical emergency. And it affects both men and women. The good news—people usually recover, although they may experience lingering effects from the syndrome.