“The two authors create an interesting narrative filled with historical snippets, trivia and a potpourri of facts which give it its encyclopaedic quality.”



Zika has been creeping into India, with the first diagnosed case being spotted in Ahmedabad quite recently. After tackling the plague, the two doctors who write as Kalpish Ratna, Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan, have turned their attention to Zika, another mystery in its time.

We know that it was caught in Brazil and that there was a monkey vector involved, carrying the virus to human beings. The two authors attempt to answer all the questions that people have about the virus in their collective research.

Some people might say that this does not make for popular reading and The Secret Life of the Zika Virus is more scientific encyclopaedia than anything else. Certainly not everyone likes delving into the recesses of this mosquito borne disease, though in an India plagued by chikengunya, dengue and malaria with parasites fast developing, it makes sense to have a certain amount of information about Zika.

Zika apparently harms foetuses by transmitting from the mother to the womb. This is why the book begins with three cases, those of two women and a man. One of the women had just had a baby and the other was pregnant. However, contrary to popular belief, researchers have known about Zika since 1947 when the fever was found in the Zika Forest and the virus isolated in Uganda. What the researchers did not realise was that the virus affected young mice far more virulently – if they had there would have been a greater understanding of the reasons behind the deformed babies born as a result of infection.

The authors track Zika to Columbus’ American journeys. Columbus went down with some kind of fever which could have been chikenguniya or even Zika, though because of joint pains it was mistaken for arthritis. Microcephaly is supposedly a result of Zika infection and there are many pictures of microcephalic Aztec men – Columbus had even noted that the people in the region were slow witted and easily dominated which could have been the result of Zika infection.

Aedes aegypti the supposed vector, given its name is of African or rather Egyptian origin. However like most things in this mystery this fact is in doubt. Three quarters of the residents of the Polynesian island of Yap had Zika in 2007, but none of the mosquitoes caught and tested showed signs of the virus.They may be another vector which has not yet been detected. And the link with microcephaly and Zika too was shaken when 1,103 babies identified with the condition were investigated and only 19 of them had traces of Zika.

What is clear is that there are no answers – however the two authors create an interesting narrative filled with historical snippets, trivia and a potpourri of facts which give it its encyclopaedic quality, much in the same way as they did for their work on plague.


Reviewed by:

Anjana Basu

Added 19th November 2017

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Anjana Basu