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Zika virus highlights how unprepared we are for public health threats

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The Zika virus is another example of something we are globally ill-prepared to treat. Coupled with Ebola, norovirus, and other outbreaks during the past year, it highlights our inability to detect and fight many viruses that threaten public health.

But Zika is unlike these other viruses; it has received little to no research funding, the only known preventive measure is to avoid mosquito bites or blood transfusion or contact with those infected, and very few labs in the world can test for Zika infection. It is likely the virus will be unknowingly carried by many people, thus creating a larger health problem as it spreads from person to person, even outside of tropical climates.

The result of the lack of funding is already becoming clear: a public health crisis and ill-conceived responses, such as that of the government of El Salvador, warning women in that country not to get pregnant for two years or until a treatment is discovered.

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Simply put, we need more funding immediately for research on Zika and viruses like it so that we can better detect and treat them. Without a sense of urgency on research from worldwide stakeholders, there will continue to be ongoing challenges to our health from these viral threats.

Thomas Webster
Boston

The writer is chairman of the chemical engineering department at Northeastern University and president of the US Society for Biomaterials.