The current Zika virus epidemic in Latin America will likely burn out within the next two to three years, according to new research.
A team of scientists from the Imperial College London wrote in the journal Science that, as the outbreak becomes more widespread in affected regions, people in those countries will develop something called “herd immunity.”
That phenomenon happens when a high percentage of a population becomes immune to an infection, either through vaccines or natural immunity, which lowers the chances of a wider outbreak, Reuters reported.
“Because the virus is unable to infect the same person twice — thanks to the immune system generating antibodies to kill it — the epidemic reaches a stage where there are too few people left to infect for transmission to be sustained,” lead author Dr. Neil Ferguson said in a statement.
The scientists said that the herd immunity will prevent further spread of the virus for at least a decade. But Ferguson cautioned that efforts to slow the virus could end up prolonging the current outbreak.
“Slowing transmission between people means the population will take longer to reach the level of herd immunity needed for transmission to stop. It might also mean that the window between epidemics — which we predict may be over a decade — could actually get shorter,” Ferguson said.
The study looked at mathematical models of the Zika virus. They compared data from the virus’ spread across Latin America to data on other viruses, including dengue. That allowed them to create a model of projected Zika transmission, which showed that the outbreak should end in two to three years.
Ferguson said that similar patterns have been seen in similar viral infections, such as chikungunya.
The virus has been circulating through Latin America and the Caribbean since the current outbreak began in Brazil in May 2015. Scientists have concluded that the virus causes a birth defect called microcephaly, and also linked it to temporary paralysis in adults.
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