by Patrick Cox
May 18, 2016
We already know about Zika-linked Guillain-Barré syndrome, which is a serious condition. This autoimmune disorder attacks the peripheral nervous system (PNS) that handles communications between the central nervous system (CNS), the brain and spine, and the rest of the body.
Scientists, however, have recently found more neurological diseases associated with Zika. The latest bad news comes from Brazilian scientists who report a Zika-related increase in another rare autoimmune disorder called acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM). The correlation with this disease, characterized by inflammation and swelling in the brain and spinal cord, takes the threat of the Zika virus to a new level.
A more aggressive brain disease
Guillain-Barré causes numbness and muscle weakness in minor cases. More serious ones can result in total paralysis and death through suffocation because the muscles involved in breathing stop working. Developed countries have iron lung technology that can keep patients alive long enough to recover, and most adults recover completely.
The developing world, however, doesn’t have the facilities to deal with the coming surge of Guillain-Barré, but I’ll focus on the developed world first.
Now, ADEM is a much scarier disease than Guillain-Barré because it gets past the PNS and hits the CNS in the brain and spinal cord directly. Damage to the CNS, unlike the PNS, is much harder for the body to repair and can produce permanent neurological disorders in the seat of consciousness.
ADEM may not increase the public’s fear level in the short term, as it doesn’t cause obvious physical deformities like microcephaly—which makes children’s heads visibly smaller. The appearance of ADEM in the Zika-infected population, however, is very ominous because people of all ages can contract the disease.
The game-changer here is that children, whose brains are still developing, may suffer permanent neurological damage if they contract ADEM from Zika-carrying mosquitos. In other words, Zika could change how young victims think and who they’ll become.
Children are in danger
Until now, we thought that Zika’s biggest threat to the developed world was the potential impact on fetuses. Yes, Guillain-Barré is sometimes a serious problem for adults, but so is the flu. It’s not that I don’t care about grownups, but I care a lot more about Zika’s ability to permanently disable otherwise healthy babies.
This may be purely emotional, but I can barely process the tragedy of babies who will never live normal lives because of the Zika virus. Their loss of ability to one day care for themselves, have families of their own, or experience the intellectual pleasures that anybody capable of reading this article takes for granted is almost unimaginable.
When scientists first discovered Zika-linked brain damage, they believed that the window of vulnerability would be relatively short, probably only the first few weeks or months of fetal development. Now we know that life-long damage can take place throughout pregnancy.
If Zika can damage a baby’s brain in the 38th or even last week in utero, why would a baby infected after delivery be safe from brain damage? Scientists have found, in fact, that children as old as six years who contract ADEM can suffer permanently lowered IQs and develop life-long behavioral disorders. Now, it seems that the Zika virus poses a greater threat to children… a danger that extends beyond gestation.
So how big is the threat to children?
A bigger threat than HIV
Dr. Oliver Brady from the University of Oxford told the BBC that the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that can carry the Zika virus inhabit regions populated by 2.2 billion people (I think he underestimates the true range). My guess is that close to ten percent of that population, or 200 million people, are six-years-old or younger and, therefore, at risk of permanent CNS damage.
I recently asked an expert in virus diseases, who treated some of the first AIDs victims, how big he thought the Zika problem would be. Unfortunately, he thinks Zika could be a much bigger public health issue than HIV.
Dr. Anne Schuchat from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently said that her organization had underestimated the Zika threat: “Everything we look at with this virus,” she admitted, “seems to be a bit scarier than we initially thought.”
It’s also reported that mosquitos have transmitted the Zika virus in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. One good hurricane could bring those mosquitos to my turf here in South Florida. In fact, many epidemiologists say it is inevitable that they’ll get here one way or another. (If you are interested in more about this, I suggest this NPR report titled, “Is a perfect storm of Zika virus conditions coming to the Gulf Coast?”)
It’s important, however, that we don’t trick ourselves into thinking that the Zika virus only requires mosquitos to spread. We now know that Zika is a sexually transmitted disease. Hundreds of such cases have been reported already, and it is complicated by several factors.
One is that many people don’t know they are carrying the virus. Worse, the active virus has been found in semen months after infection, raising the yet unverified possibility that it may remain hidden in the body—like Ebola and HIV—much longer than we previously assumed.
Zika puts a lot of pressure on politicians to fund preventive measures. Don’t think, however, that throwing money at this problem will solve it. For example, most of the money spent on anti-Ebola efforts was wasted.
I believe the Zika problem could be solved with only a few hundred million dollars. I know the scientists who are developing next generation biotechnologies capable of curing these emerging virus diseases, and I expect they will have evidence in the next month or so. I won’t name them, however, because they would never want to be associated with someone like me who publicly criticizes government health authorities, even if they agree privately.
Anyway, the Zika virus will play a growing role in the public consciousness and have profound implications. I think that the impact on birthrates may be the most interesting side effect of this disease. Latin American governments have already advised women not to get pregnant. Other countries (including the US) are warning men and women who are contemplating child birth about travel to infected areas.
Zika makes childbirth riskier in the midst of the most profound demographic shift in human history. As scientifically literate demographers like Warren Thompson predicted 75 years ago, population growth has reversed for the first time in history. The Zika virus could significantly accelerate this reversal.
Politicians and the talking heads in North America haven’t discussed it yet, perhaps because so many were vested in the overpopulation myth. The political and economic results of this change, however, are immense, changing even military and foreign policy realities.
Zika, depopulation, and war
Traditionally, wars of aggression have been waged by countries with growing populations made up of far more young people than old. The side with the greatest number of soldiers normally won them. Conquests may not have been explicitly justified by the need for expanded territories, but it was frequently a factor.
Shrinking populations of young people, however, can change that dynamic for most of the world. You don’t need lebensraum when you experience sub-replacement fertility rates. In fact, regimes with expansionist philosophies but low birthrates face the opposite problem—not enough young men for military service.
Russia, for example, is in a full-blown depopulation crisis. President Vladimir Putin has called Russia’s population decline, caused by a fertility rate of only about 1.3 children per woman, “The most acute problem of contemporary Russia.” Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, a supporter of Putin’s policies, is gaining traction in his call for major reductions in abortions. Moreover, he frames the debate not only in ethical terms but in demographic terms as well.
Many people in the Balkans worry about Russian militarism, and I don’t blame them. I think we should note, however, that the annexation of Ukrainian territories seems motivated in large part by Putin’s desire to add ethnic Russians to his population roster. Russia has also taken legislative steps to encourage additional births. And Iran, which has clearly stated military goals, is also attempting to reverse its falling population and birthrate.
We’re in uncharted waters today, and nobody understands how depopulation will change the world. I’ll spare you my forecasts for now but want to make one observation about my solution to the financial problems caused by falling birthrates and growing elderly populations. That solution, as you know, is anti-aging biotechnologies.
If we can extend health spans and the productive portions of our lives by a decade, all of our books will balance. Populations will continue to fall… but at a slower rate. The population, however, will be growing on the older side.
This sort of population growth is not what militarists want because older people are not normally considered proper military candidates. Technological advancements, including robotics and automation, could change that reality, though.
Has radical life extension arrived?
This brings me back to my primary focus: anti-aging biotechnologies. A couple of things have happened this month that could have a profound impact on demographics and your future. I can only talk about one at this point.
You may have seen the headlines about Elizabeth Parrish, the CEO of Bioviva USA. I wrote briefly about her experimentation when she first underwent gene therapy designed to activate the telomerase gene. I was skeptical at the time, but there’s no question that successful telomerase therapy could change everything about the anti-aging science.
Here’s a primer on telomeres by New Scientist for those not familiar with them.
Telomeres are the clock of aging, so the ability to add them through activation of the telomerase gene could theoretically push health spans beyond the maximum—or Hayflick limit—which is about 120 years. Recently, Parrish announced that she had reversed twenty years of aging as calculated by the length of telomeres measured in white blood cells. If this is true for her entire body, her maximum life span would now be 140 years.
In fact, I know the scientist who designed her therapy using genetically engineered viruses. He asked me not to write about his role in Parrish’s experiment at the time, but he’s agreed to give an interview and let me tell more of the story in the near future.
He remains skeptical of the reported results himself, but this is a really interesting story. And I’ll bring it to you as soon as I can.
— Alarming Zika News, War, and Radical Life Extension is republished with permission of Mauldin Economics.