The economics of Zika

The economics of Zika
© Getty Images

The outbreak of the Zika virus that has swept Latin America in recent months will have an economic impact estimated at $3.5 billion in 2016, as stated by the World Bank earlier this year. This number may be too conservative in light of new facts indicating that the Zika epidemic will be one of the largest and most expensive infectious disease outbreaks in recent history. 

Concern over the Zika virus has increased dramatically during the past few weeks as both authorities and civilians began to realize the true impact of the epidemic. The warning signs cannot be ignored any longer. Just this month, the first “Zika baby” born in the continental U.S., at a Hackensack, N.J., hospital, was diagnosed with a congenital malformation of the head. The latest U.S. statistics show 341 confirmed cases of Zika among pregnant women in the U.S. and its territories, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 


To add fuel to the fire, leading researchers are growing concerned that young children infected with Zika are at a much greater risk of developing virus-related diseases than adults. This means we should not only consider the risk to the 64 million pregnancies per year in the Americas but also the fact that Zika may cause a continuing threat to the developing brains of young children over the first years of life. This more recent concern underscores how little we know about Zika in the Americas, and highlights the dramatic challenges facing emergency public health interventions to stop the virus. “We must not only protect pregnant women from mosquitoes and from sexual contact with men who may harbor the virus, but must now extend a protective shield over children for the first years of their life,” states Michael Callahan, one of the founders of the Zika Foundation, a multinational not-for-profit philanthropy that has become an emerging leader in the global fight against Zika. 

The economic impact throughout the tropical Americas and Caribbean is staggering. Pregnant women infected by the virus have a 28 percent likelihood of giving birth to a child with microcephaly, a birth defect in which the baby has a disproportionately small head and an underdeveloped brain. These children will not develop normally and will require lifelong support, causing a drain on families and the medical infrastructure. The current estimated lifetime medical cost to care for such a child is $10 million. This translates to $20 billion for every 2,000 children born with Zika virus-induced birth defects. To put this in perspective: Brazil expects 2,500 cases of microcephaly this year, according to the World Health Organization. Care for these children will overwhelm the fragile medical care systems of Brazil and surrounding countries, and resources devoted to the care of these children will mean fewer resources available for lifesaving medical and surgical capabilities. The ripple effect of Zika on medical infrastructure is dramatic in the near term and will continue over the lifetime of these children. 

A little over a week ago, The Wall Street Journal put the Zika crisis on its front page, reporting that in Puerto Rico, more than 1,350 people tested positive for Zika, including 168 pregnant women. If we do the simple math of counting the healthcare cost of caring for children with microcephaly, the numbers become truly detrimental for countries with both developed and developing economies. The economic consequences of the unfolding epidemic could be truly disastrous and cannot be correctly estimated because thousands of people are likely to be infected without symptoms, the Journal concluded. 

Additionally, Zika causes Guillain--Barré syndrome (GBS) in up to 1 percent of those infected, and GBS causes muscular paralysis. The cost to treat an individual with GBS is in excess of $500,000 per year, which translates to $1 billion a year for every 2,000 infected with the virus. These are the closest current estimations for the cost of medical treatment only; the additional costs of diagnosis includes testing pregnant women suspected to have been exposed to the virus. Moreover, if the mother is confirmed to have the virus, there is the additional cost of ultrasound and intrapartum testing of the child. 

Lastly, if the virus continues to spread in major Caribbean tourist destinations, it is reasonable to anticipate a continued loss of tourism dollars. There is no better example of the impact on tourism then the recent cancelation of the Marlins-Pirates baseball game scheduled to take place in Puerto Rico, vacancies on Caribbean cruise ships and disruption in Canadian and American business and professional conferences scheduled in tropical resorts for winter 2017. The same is true for the most controversial issue: whether to postpone the Olympics in Brazil this August in an effort to protect the health of spectators and athletes, as well as to prevent exportation of Zika in infected men, back to their home countries. Over 150 public health experts, medical scientists and academics from around the world have argued to relocate the Olympics in an open letter to the World Trade Organization. 

An article in the Harvard Public Health Review described the situation well: “Simply put, Zika infection is more dangerous ... than scientists reckoned a short time ago.” The president and Congress have been attempting to come to an agreement on spending $1.8 billion to fight and study the virus since February. Considering the active transmission of Zika throughout at least 62 countries and territories, including the southern U.S. and Puerto Rico, the reality is that the potential economic impact, not to mention human damage, that the Zika virus will bring dwarfs the $1.8 billion Congress is debating spending. 

The human tragedy of children born with abnormal brains and adults developing paralysis, combined with the startling economic impact, compels any reasonable person to address the problem now, when Zika is a brush fire in the wilderness, rather than a wildfire that affects our borders, our national and local economies and the health of men, women and children of all warm nations in the Americas. The best of us can unite behind this unambiguous, undeniable threat to health, the economy and the rights to safe conception and healthy families.  

Ulansky is with The Zika Foundation.