A Series by New Scientists
1947. Entebbe, Uganda.
Wind-tossed branches throw light across a monkey lying on the floor of a metal cage. In the sudden sun the limp form shifts slightly, then settles. It does not move again, even when cracking branches herald the approach of a much larger primate. The hairless newcomer opens the cage door and gently lifts the sick rhesus monkey. The traveler departs.
2007. Yap Island, Micronesia.
A fisherman stumbles into the cool darkness of his tibnaw, or family house, a relief for his thrumming headache after the brilliant sand and water. His wife follows from the detached kitchen. She moves aside the curtain and calls his name. A week later a hundred more are sick. The Center for Disease Control is called in. One doctor expresses particular concern for pregnant women who contract the disease. Soon, the Americans leave to file their reports. After 70 years of silent roving, the traveler briefly shows itself.
The world is warmer now. Only slightly, but it is enough to lend the traveler’s previously leisurely pace something like urgency.
2013. Easter Island.
A woven canoe sends whorls through Pacific waters that are reflected in the grass skirts and painted faces at the summer festival. Though a two-person canoe, a third passenger glides with them unseen. The traveler has crossed an entire ocean, incognito through innumerable islands, in this way.
2015. Bahia, Brazil.
A public health worker searches for a pattern in the hospital records of recent mothers to explain a mysterious national spike in children born with brain deformities. Her breath catches. From the numbers on her monitor the traveler stares back at her, unblinking. As the traveler continues its silent trek across the globe, more people glimpse its face. It comes to be recognized by the name of the Ugandan jungle where its journey began: Zika.
2016. Zurich, Switzerland.
The traveler’s name is now a constant across television screens, spoken in the streets and subway stations, though much is still unknown. It rides pulsing through blood or on mosquito wings. Most of the time it is a quiet passenger; the only signs an occasional ruddy rash or aching joint. But it is deadly to unborn babies. There are questions of course: Why here? Why now? In this cold place the traveler will likely never visit, the World Health Organization begins to respond to the harried doctors and fearful mothers by declaring a global public health emergency.
2016. Miami, Florida.
The traveler arrives in a neon city farther north than it has ever been. Concealed within a mosquito, early for the spring season, it slips through the cracked insulation of a dilapidated apartment. Inside, Zika plants its flag on American soil. Like any good adventurer this traveler is pushing boundaries. Each year the climate is better than the one preceding. Places that were too cold and dry for the virus, and the mosquitoes that spread it, are welcoming now. The traveler is appearing where it never could have before, and it is not the only disease to do so.
2016. Brownsville, Texas.
Summer in Brownsville is tourist season for more than vacationing families. A pregnant woman visits her local clinic complaining of a rash and fever. The doctor is at a loss. The symptoms are shared with the many other mosquito-borne diseases that have had recent outbreaks in the area. Dengue, chikungunya, West Nile virus–all mosquito-borne diseases that have newly arrived or returned to the continental U.S. in the last 15 years after decades of absence. With more environments becoming suitable for them every year, the United States has already become a top destination for Zika and other travelers like it.
2017. Tucson, Arizona.
The traveler embarks yet again, but not of its own will. I lock myself in with my new guest behind a heavy door, one that looks stolen from the nearby missile testing grounds, though meant to keep disaster in rather than out. I have been watching Zika a long time. Have watched it spread through South America to Central America to its present perch on the Southern border of the United States. It waits until the next monsoon season. The traveler passes through my hands, suspended in scarlet, and into a horde of waiting insectoid mouths. The eggs this infected blood nourishes will hatch in great wriggling masses.
If I find Zika in these offspring before they themselves drink blood, it means the virus can be passed between mosquitoes without the need to bite an infected human. It means the traveler could stay in all the new places it has spread instead of dying off with the mosquitoes in the wintry cold. Biding its time for the right temperature and humidity, the right tepid pool of water in a neglected flowerpot–conditions that come earlier and stay later each year.
For now Zika’s ability to pass between successive generations of mosquitoes is a question I think about every day, my work paced to the coming rains. The answer will help keep public health workers one step ahead of the steadily increasing outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases, of which Zika is only the latest. For now, this traveler is detained, super-cooled in liquid nitrogen behind the locked door of my laboratory.
Header photo of of Genevieve Comeau in the lab courtesy Genevieve Comeau.