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Zika, the premise behind a pandemic: on the trail of a serial killer

 

The mosquito transmits many viruses and parasites. In French Polynesia, it was the vector of the Zika virus epidemic that launched a worldwide alert. Hervé Corbières, the film director of Zika, les prémices d’une pandémie1 reached out to patients, healthcare professionals, scientists and managers who experienced the crisis at first hand.

 

The Zika virus, responsible for the disease of the same name, was first isolated in a monkey in Uganda, in 1947, and again the following year in a mosquito specimen from the same region. The first human cases were reported in the 1970’s in Malaysia but, before the Polynesian crisis, Zika remained relatively unknown.

Didier Musso, Director of the Research Center for Emerging Diseases at the Louis Malardé Institute, remembers: “We had no hindsight on the disease when Zika arrived. We had very little information. In 2007, a first epidemic was reported in the island of Yap, one of the islands of the Federated States of Micronesia. But afterwards, nothing. There were just a few minor cases without any serious complications. It left as it came, it disappeared globally.”

Hervé Corbières, director of the documentary Zika, les prémices d’une pandémie, looks back on the arrival of the virus in French Polynesia, on its impact, on how the patients were cared for, and also on how the crisis was managed. “Why didn’t anyone really take the measure of what we were experiencing here?” asks Henri Pierre Mallet, the head of surveillance at the Ministry of Health in French Polynesia. “Because there were no deaths,” he answers. If one believes the respondents, French Polynesia, overwhelmed, did its best. It sought assistance, but to no avail.

55,000 cases of Zika in French Polynesia

This film retracing the crisis that took place in French Polynesia in 2013 and 2014, affecting one fifth of the population (55,000 cases), struck a chord among the spectators. “After having experienced the epidemic on an individual basis, they were able to measure the scale of the phenomenon,” says Catherine Marconnet, co-producer of the documentary.

An impact of variable intensity

Most of the persons affected by Zika (between 70 to 80% of the cases), do not experience symptoms. For others, the symptoms are similar to those of influenza with occasional rash, conjunctivitis, digestive disorders and edema.

But that’s not all, for there are potential complications. During the epidemic in French Polynesia, the number of Guillain-Barré syndrome cases was abnormally high (the neurological disorders were 20 times more frequent). Moreover, in pregnant women the virus, if transmitted to the fetus, is linked to microcephaly, a severe birth defect resulting in irreversible mental disorder. Research continues to confirm what, today, are still hypotheses. But the planet shudders for no one knows when or where Zika will strike again. All of the territories in which the vector is prevalent (Aedes mosquito species) are potentially at risk.

Mosquitoes kill 725,000 people every year

Today, “French Polynesia is rid of Zika, the chikungunya virus is back and dengue is dreaded… pending the next arbovirus2,” is the documentary’s concluding message. For the mosquito is a serial killer. Each year it kills 725,000 people in the world.

The fight is being organized to protect, forestall, and get rid of mosquitoes. Experiments are being carried out in Tetiaroa where a million sterilizing male mosquitoes have already been released. The results are promising but the study area remains limited. The threat looms over the other islands of French Polynesia and around the world.

« Zika les prémices d’une pandémie inspired us to make another documentary, Sur le fil du zika, shot on the island of Réunion, in French Guiana, in New Caledonia, in French Polynesia and in the West Indies,” says Catherine Marconnet. “It addresses the disease from a different angle, namely, patient care and the reactivity of territories and island countries when dealing with this kind of crisis.” They are like sentinels that the planet watches with interest.

 

1 Pandemic: epidemic occurring over a wide geographic area.

2 Arbovirus: virus transmitted by a bite from an infected arthropod (mosquito, tick…).