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How Scientists Are Fighting a Zika Outbreak in the US

In our new series, “Symptomatic” Motherboard explores how we’re combating the globe’s most threatening diseases.

The rapid spread of deadly diseases across the world is one of the most potentially devastating results of humanity's spectacular globalization over the past century.

An isolated virus that might have once only plagued a small community can now ricochet to every continent within a matter of weeks via extensive flight networks connecting almost every country. As we continue to crowd together into cities, we're even more likely to experience an epidemic of unimaginable proportions.


The comforting news is that scientists, doctors, and politicians are fighting back, and Motherboard is investigating how they plan to contain the infectious diseases that threaten humanity. In the first episode of our new series Symptomatic, we tackled the most headline-grabbing virus of late: Zika.

The Gulf Coast of the United States is particularly susceptible to Zika, and if the country experiences an epidemic of the mosquito-borne illness, its poorest citizens will be hit the hardest. We've already seen a number of cases in America, and experts fear this is only the beginning.

While a case of Zika can be relatively mild—most patients will experience none or only slight flu-like symptoms—the virus is extremely dangerous for pregnant women, and the Centers for Disease Control says there's no question that it causes microcephaly, which prevents an infant's brain from growing properly. Thousands of infants South America have already been affected, and the virus is spreading quickly.

To make matters more complicated, researchers have discovered that Zika isn't just transmitted via mosquito bites, it can be spread via intercourse too, and a sexually transmitted case was reported in Dallas in February. The disease is expected to continue to spread across the Americas, although it likely won't come to northern states, where it's too cold for mosquitoes to breed.

But there is a chance that climate change contributed to the spread of Zika, and environments not equipped to handle mosquito-borne diseases might begin to experience them for the first time as temperatures continue to rise.

In this episode, we talk to some of the world's leading researchers about their plans to combat Zika, and to try and help the four million people the World Health Organization says are vulnerable to contracting the virus this year alone. Right now, there's no cure and no vaccine. If nothing is done, the CDC says that an outbreak in the US is likely.