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Pedro Reina-Pérez

2016 Words of the Year: Zika

Sarah Lazarovic for The Boston Globe

Zika (n.)

This year, Zika fought well above its weight class. A tiny virus, carried by a tiny bug, that triggered a global freakout. And then, just as quickly as it began, the crisis was declared over.

Transmitted primarily by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, Zika isn’t normally problematic. Eight out of 10 people infected will not develop any symptoms. An infection can only be confirmed through laboratory tests on blood or other body fluids. No commercial vaccines are yet available.

In July 2015 Brazil was the first country to declare an epidemic with two distinct characteristics: an association between Zika and Guillain-Barré syndrome in adults, and another with Zika and microcephaly in newborns. The Rio Olympics were a huge worry — some athletes and spectators stayed away, scientists called for the Games to be moved or canceled — yet not a single case of Zika was reported during the games. To this day, Brazil is the only country reporting a significant connection between the virus and these two conditions.


But the threat of scores of women giving birth to children with microcephaly in the United States, even without solid empirical evidence, set off alarms, and Puerto Rico was identified as the potential gateway. An epidemic was declared in January. Mass infections throughout the island were imminent, officials warned.

The US government took an aggressive stance in combating Zika; millions were spent to contain, study, and treat the disease.

The epidemic peaked in September, and the number of confirmed cases in Puerto Rico steadily decreased. There were 35,136 cases declared as of Dec. 8, with 67 cases of Guillain-Barré and seven newborns with congenital defects. More than 2,000 pregnant women contracted Zika.

Then in November, the World Health Organization declared an end to its global health emergency, saying, “Zika is now shown to be a dangerous mosquito-borne disease, like malaria or yellow fever, and should be viewed as an ongoing threat met as other diseases are.” There was no explanation for the change of tone.

Meanwhile in the tropics, the mosquitoes keep on buzzing . . . and biting.


— Pedro Reina-Pérez

Pedro Reina-Pérez is a historian, journalist, and blogger specializing in contemporary Spanish Caribbean history.