The Zika virus situation is this year’s Ebola. Like with Ebola, a lot of doom and gloom is floating around, and a lot of outright lies are being put forth by people who have no clue of what is going on. They are relying on fears and speculation to drive up visits to their websites or blogs because clicks pay in today’s internet economy.
Not on this blog. If you look around, you’ll see that I am not selling you anything. I’m not advertising for anyone, and I will resist every urge to do so. If I were in the business of making money, I wouldn’t be in Public Health. My profession is notorious for under-paying people in it, unless you manage to land some big-time consultancy or an academic position.
With that in mind, I want to tell you some things you need to know about Zika right now, and some things you need to keep in mind as we move into the warmer months of the year here in the United States, or if you’re traveling abroad. Just like with all emergencies, be informed and act, but don’t get consumed by it all. Most of all, don’t panic.
- Zika is a viral infection caused by — you guessed it — the Zika virus. The Zika virus (or ZIKV as some are calling it) is a relative of Yellow Fever, Dengue, and West Nile Virus. Like its cousins, Zika is transmitted by mosquitoes.
- The species of mosquito that is primarily distributing Zika around the world is the Aedes species of mosquito. Currently, in South America, it is the Aedes aegypti mosquito that is doing most of the transmission. This Aedes species also transmits Chikungunya and Dengue. In the United States, we have the Aedes albopictus species more than A. aegypti. That doesn’t put us in the clear, however, as A. albopictus has been associated with Zika outbreaks in the past.
- It is generally a good idea to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes, whether here in the United States or in a tropical area, or in Europe. It doesn’t matter. Avoid being bitten by mosquitoes, flies, ticks, and other insects/arthropods to maximize your chances of avoiding Zika and other arthropod-borne infections. Avoid areas where there are a lot of mosquitoes, wear long sleeves and long pants if you must go to those areas, wear repellents, drain any standing water near or inside your home, etc. Do what you need to do to prevent mosquito bites and control their population. But be smart about it. Don’t think that because your town government fogged for mosquitoes that somehow you’re protected. You might not be.
- As of today, Wednesday, February 17, 2016, there has been no causal link between microcephaly (a reduced size of the head at birth) and Zika virus infection during pregnancy, but there is compelling evidence that there is a link in there somewhere. A few days ago, an activist group from South America came out with a position that it was a larvicide (a chemical added to water to prevent mosquito larvae from maturing) that was causing the microcephaly seen in places where there is heavy Zika infection rates. This is nothing more than a conspiracy theory at this point. In fact, the evidence against the larvicidal is flimsier than the evidence for Zika causing microcephaly. That is, if we are to believe it’s Monsanto and the evil corporations causing microcephaly, then we must accept that it’s Zika because the evidence for Zika causing it is more coherent.
- There is a lot yet to learn about Zika, shamefully. And I write “shamefully” because Zika has been hitting places far from the United States for a while now, and it is only now that it is at our doorstep that we are panicking into doing something about it. We really are panicking. You see the panic in politicians who are, like they did with Ebola, calling for strict quarantines of people traveling to places where Zika is being actively transmitted. (As if mosquitoes can be quarantined.) And you see the panic in the increased response from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). They are pulling a lot of resources from a lot of places, yet duplicating a lot of the work that has already been done by public health agencies in other countries. (It’s not good enough until Americans do it, I guess.) Had we done all this when French Polynesia got hit in 2013, we might have avoided Zika from reaching Brazil. Had we done it before that, we might have contained it SE Asia.
- So stay informed on the situation by frequenting the WHO News/Media Center or the CDC Zika Web Page. If you want opinion, you can come to this blog, or Orac’s, or the Public Library of Science’s Neglected Tropical Diseases page, or the Virology Blog. Don’t panic. You’re going to be okay. We all are.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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