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We have a frightening new virus in the world—Zika—and a new global health emergency as a result.
First transmitted by mosquitoes, the Zika virus likely originated in the hot tropical climates of Africa and Asia—but it might surprise you to learn that the virus is not new, and has been around for decades. Initially isolated from a rhesus macaque monkey in Uganda’s Zika (which means “overgrown” in the Luganda language) Forest in 1947, the virus likely spread to humans long before that. How do we know? A 1952 study in India showed that many people’s immune systems responded to the virus, which indicates it had spread widely among human populations there for quite some time.
It probably went undetected for so long because the disease the Zika virus produces, called Zika fever, only results in mild symptoms—headaches, rashes, a slightly elevated temperature—that tend to resolve themselves within a week or so. Most people—as many as 80% of those who contract the virus—don’t get any symptoms at all. No known fatalities have resulted from the disease, another reason why it has remained relatively unknown and un-studied; and why no Zika vaccine yet exists.
Now, however, because of the many thousands of cases of birth defects like microcephaly that may be linked to the virus, and because of emerging evidence that the virus may also be sexually transmissible, some of the world’s health organizations have issued an unprecedented alarm: pregnant women, or those who might get pregnant and their partners, should avoid traveling to the hotter, tropical and equatorial areas of the world where daytime-active mosquitoes like the Aedes types flourish. Women of child-bearing ages who live in those areas, governments have warned, should avoid becoming pregnant, at least until a vaccine can be developed. How long will that be? No one knows, but estimates range from two years to a decade before such a vaccine becomes widely available.
This has never happened before. With deadly diseases like AIDS and Ebola, health organizations issued cautionary warnings, but no virus has ever caused them to tell women to stop having children. We don’t know if interrupting the natural human cycle of reproduction is even possible. In many of the countries where Zika has spread, birth control isn’t widely available, affordable or culturally accepted.
Public health experts fear that it could get much worse. As our climate continues to warm, the natural range of the mosquitoes that spread Zika has increased, and will continue to do so. Those mosquitoes have moved from the tropical zones to the more temperate ones like the southern United States. One of the many unanticipated side effects and consequences of climate change, the spread of disease across greater and greater areas of the Earth will increasingly challenge the world to respond with one voice and one plan of action to new viral pandemics like Zika. As the world warms, as viruses mutate and spread, and as antibiotic-resistant microorganisms re-emerge as stronger and harder-to-fight diseases, many of these potential new pandemics will threaten us—all of us. The Zika virus, then, represents just one among many previously-unknown diseases that will endanger humanity in years to come, and which will require a rapid and robust reaction from the entire planet at once.
Today, the international community needs a well-coordinated, sufficiently effective global mechanism to respond to such dire current and future public health challenges. The World Health Organization and other official medical and public health agencies at the national and international level do not have sufficient funding, staffing or research capabilities—which they need and could certainly develop under a better-unified, coordinated and cooperative global governmental system. The Baha’i teachings advocate just such a unified global public health endeavor:
We ask God to endow human souls with justice so that they may be fair, and may strive to provide for the comfort of all, that each member of humanity may pass his life in the utmost comfort and welfare. Then this material world will become the very paradise of the Kingdom, this elemental earth will be in a heavenly state and all the servants of God will live in the utmost joy, happiness and gladness…
Whatever is necessary for the public health must be arranged. Swamps should be filled up, water should be brought in; whatever is necessary for the public health. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 10, pp. 118-119.
This focus on the health of all people comes from a longer list of necessary global public expenditures the Baha’i teachings advocate, including the alleviation of poverty, care for the sick and the orphaned, the organization and funding of public schools for universal compulsory education, and the provision of services for the deaf and blind. In the future state of peaceful and unified human society the Baha’i teachings envision, the entire world’s resources will ensure the global extension of these vitally important goals:
National rivalries, hatreds, and intrigues will cease, and racial animosity and prejudice will be replaced by racial amity, understanding and cooperation. The causes of religious strife will be permanently removed, economic barriers and restrictions will be completely abolished, and the inordinate distinction between classes will be obliterated. Destitution on the one hand, and gross accumulation of ownership on the other, will disappear. The enormous energy dissipated and wasted on war, whether economic or political, will be consecrated to such ends as will extend the range of human inventions and technical development, to the increase of the productivity of mankind, to the extermination of disease, to the extension of scientific research, to the raising of the standard of physical health, to the sharpening and refinement of the human brain, to the exploitation of the unused and unsuspected resources of the planet, to the prolongation of human life, and to the furtherance of any other agency that can stimulate the intellectual, the moral, and spiritual life of the entire human race. – Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 203.
To raise the standard of physical health and exterminate disease, the world needs a better-funded and better-organized global health authority, as one part of a worldwide democratic model of governance. If we start establishing that groundwork now, we can conceivably exterminate the next planetary pandemic before it causes untold human suffering.