Earlier this month, on August 1, for the first time in history, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommended against traveling to a location within the continental United States. The warning for pregnant women to avoid a neighborhood in Miami fueled anxiety about the Zika virus, which has overtaken regions of South and Central America.
Now, as of August 19, the CDC says pregnant women should not visit another area at Miami Beach, where additional cases of the virus have been confirmed.
In comparison to Ebola, which pitched Western Africa into crisis two years ago, Zika confers low mortality. A recent study links Zika with Guillain-Barré (GB) syndrome, a paralytic illness that can be life threatening — however the incidence of GB was only 2.4 cases per 10,000 Zika infections. Only 20% of patients with Zika even develop symptoms, and those few patients usually suffer banal complaints of fever, rash, and joint pains. Prior to 2007, medical practitioners throughout Africa and Southeast Asia considered Zika a benign illness.
Why in 2016, then, has Zika earned the title “This Year’s Scariest Virus”? Why the unprecedented measures by the CDC? Why has it compelled the World Health Organization to declare a public health emergency?
As Christians, how do we understand the outbreak, and how do we respond to the fears, both in our communities and in our own hearts?
Although Zika rarely harms adults, we all have seen headlines alerting us to its devastating effects upon unborn children. The outbreak in Brazil has unveiled an association between Zika infection and infant microcephaly (Latin for “small head”). In afflicted babies, the small head circumference heralds a more sinister issue: abnormal development of the brain, often in conjunction with other nervous system malformations.
Our knowledge of Zika lags behind the rising case numbers in the United States. Studies estimate the risk of microcephaly ranges from 1–13% among women infected with Zika during the first trimester. Odds ranging from 1-in-100 to 1-in-10 offer the worried mother little reassurance.
We do not yet understand why some infants born to Zika-infected mothers develop abnormally, while others are born healthy. Our rudimentary data even limits counseling about prevention. Without an available vaccine, prophylaxis against Zika hinges upon control of transmission. As the virus transmits sexually as well as via mosquito, and most people develop no symptoms, these recommendations reflect sweeping estimates, without the backing of rigorous data.
In Our Desperation
Amid the medical terminology, the Zika virus frightens us with its insidiousness, and with its attack upon the unborn. It embodies our sin nature — furtive, often beyond the periphery of our recognition. It can complete its destructive work quietly, even silently. And it targets all of us, even those in the womb, babies whose eyes have not yet seen daylight.
Zika highlights our desperate need for a Savior. All of us enter the world mired in sin. No one is immune to the calamity that necessarily follows (Psalm 53:3; Romans 6:23). Contemplation of our deserved fate unveils the preciousness of Christ’s sacrifice for us. As we marvel at God’s grace toward us, and consider the dilemmas the Zika outbreak creates for families, compassion must direct our actions (Matthew 5:7). We must extend our hands in mercy, and fill our days with fervent prayer.
1. Pray for Mothers
Concurrent with all its exquisiteness — the flutterings and thumpings of a miracle unfolding in the womb — pregnancy heaps a tumult of physical and emotional difficulties upon expectant mothers. To add the risk of severe congenital abnormalities threatens despair for pregnant women. For those diagnosed with Zika, despondency and fear may pressure one to consider abortion.
Pray for expectant mothers. Pray, and reach out to them, talk with them, embrace them. Encourage them with the good news that Jesus promises to be with them always, that he died for them, and that he will ease their burdens (Matthew 28:20; Psalm 68:19). Uplift them with God’s pledge to cherish them, so they may banish fear (Psalm 27:1; Matthew 6:25–34).
Pray that pregnant women infected with Zika may still revel in the miracle of birth, and treasure their role in a process that is God-breathed (Genesis 2:7; Jeremiah 1:5). Pray that they may understand that regardless of the outcome, each child is a gift from God — and that he may give them the courage, means, and support required to nurture a microcephalic child for a lifetime.
2. Pray for Afflicted Babies
God cherishes all children. He creates all in his image, and gives each a purpose (Exodus 9:16; Romans 8:28; 1 Corinthians 3:8). While sin may inflict disabilities, such disabilities do not tarnish a child’s status as an image-bearer of God almighty. Scripture teaches that he will use infirmities to his glory. A man may be born blind, or a child born with microcephaly, for reasons beyond our comprehension, “so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:1–3).
The effects of microcephaly can range from mild cognitive impairment to severe disability. Pray for God’s mercy upon such children. For those severely afflicted, pray God may equip their families with the strength and perseverance necessary to follow the ministry he has selected for them.
3. Pray for Medical Researchers and Practitioners
Sound medical science requires funding, a rigorous methodology, resources, and time. The current outbreak pressures professionals for swift answers, yet haste can compromise medical research.
Pray that scientists and medical doctors striving to close the knowledge gap may do so with expediency and focus. Pray that God uses their gifts toward his glory (Romans 12:6–8).
4. Pray Against Despair
The Bible teaches that although God never celebrates suffering, he repeatedly uses it for good (Genesis 50:20; John 11:4). Whatever tragedy may befall us, we can rest assured that the Lord of all, who is absolutely sovereign, knows our grief. He has already overcome evil. No illness or threat can rob from us the assurance of salvation through Christ (1 Corinthians 15:55).
When we profess our faith in the living Christ, no disease, no matter how frightening and insidious, can trample our hope.