Zika: Truth, Rumors and Misconceptions


Marvin Recinos-Getty Images

Marvin Recinos-Getty Images

The Zika virus is very serious business, but am I the only person who when they hear the word “Zika” think of the vile tasting clear adult beverage “Zima” that was popular during the wine cooler craze of the 80’s? Perhaps I’m just old.

Be that as it may, one thing is for certain.  For pregnant females, being infected with the Zika virus does  run a serious risk of causing birth defects of very specific types.  Microcephaly, a neurological condition in which the head of an infant is significantly smaller than what is expected of children of the same age and sex, is perhaps the most serious of these.  There is no specific treatment for this condition, but early intervention with speech and occupational therapies may help increase quality of life for the patient.

As we find with many emerging infectious diseases, plenty of rumors, myths and just plain misinformation are mixed in with actual medical facts.  One prevalent myth is that a person can become infected with Zika through drinking contaminated water.  This is not true.  However, there are a host of other maladies that can be picked up by drinking non-purified water.  As of this writing, the Zika virus is known to be transmitted through the bites of infected female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, through sexual contact, blood transfusions and accidental laboratory exposure to those investigating the virus.  That’s it.

A dangerous misconception being spread in some parts of the world is that the whole Zika epidemic is much ado about nothing, and the virus is not truly tied to an increased incidence of birth defects in children of infected mothers.  Simply not true.  A recent article published in The Lancet Infectious Disease Report states that “Zika virus infection in pregnancy does cause microcephaly and should be added to the list of known congenital infections such as toxoplasmosis and rubella.”.  The research behind that study is ongoing, and scientists are waiting on a full analysis of 200 active cases and 400 controls before they will comment further on the true extent of the effect.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has a web page dedicated to dispelling rumors surrounding the Zika virus.  http://www.who.int/emergencies/zika-virus/articles/rumours/en/  On it, you can find information dispensing with the idea that any one kind of insect repellent is better than another in keeping the biting mosquitoes at bay.  I found it interesting to discover the fact that “there is no evidence for any restriction of the use of these repellents by pregnant women if they are used in accordance with the instructions on the product label.”  Of course, you’ll always want to keep as much skin as possible covered by clothing in areas where Aedes aegypti are prevalent.

There have been genetically modified mosquitoes released into the wild in Brazil, causing concern in more than a few people worldwide.  Rumors abound that these genetically modified organisms are in some way linked to the Zika virus and therefore the increased incidence of microcephaly in their nation.  This cannot be the case, however, because only modified male mosquitoes are being released and only females bite humans.

Some of the techniques being developed to control the mosquitoes would have just a couple years ago been look at as the stuff of science fiction.  For example, a technique is being developed to sterilize massive numbers of male mosquitoes using low doses of radiation. After being radiologically sterilized, they will be released into the wild.  No, I’m not kidding.  The science behind this is that when a sterile male mosquito breeds with a female, her eggs do not survive.  When the male population outnumbers the female population in a given ecosystem, the entire species eventually dies out.  This is not a new idea and has been used against other organisms (fruit flies for example) in the wild.

The good news about Zika is that the majority of those infected will have no symptoms at all or only very mild symptoms such as joint and muscle pains and perhaps running a small fever.  These symptoms seldom last longer than a week and resolve themselves without any special treatment.

My guess is that we will be learning more and more about this emerging infectious disease and high-tech ways to prevent its spread for years to come.  In the meantime, if you find yourself in a Zika zone, be sure to stay covered from head to toe and don’t be stingy with the DEET.



Medical News Today:  Zika does cause microcephaly, but questions remain  http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/312938.php

World Health Organization: Dispelling rumours around Zika and complications

Business Insider:  5 of the biggest myths and misconceptions about Zika, debunked http://www.businessinsider.com/false-myths-about-zika-debunked-by-science-2016-8


About Guy McCardle

Guy McCardle is an American science writer and skeptic. He is a certified Infection Prevention Specialist and served proudly as a Captain in the Army Medical Corps during Operation Iraqi Freedom. A devoted father and husband, he offers his unique viewpoints regarding science and the public interest.
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5 Responses to Zika: Truth, Rumors and Misconceptions

  1. Mike says:

    Thanks for the link. I’m particularly concerned about the scientific consensus that Zika virus is a cause of Guillain-Barré syndrome which can be a fatal condition. But fortunately it is extremely rare.

    • Guillain-Barre syndrome is not directly related to any particular disease. It is a reaction by the nervous system often in response to a viral illness. Not any specific viral illness. Rarely to certain bacterial infections. It happens at a very tiny percentage. At this point there is some evidence that it might be an overreaction by the immune defenses towards the neurological cell membrane. Still no definitive cause. Most common diseases associated with it is HIV and Influenza, and certain gut illnesses.

    • Guy McCardle, Jr says:

      You are welcome. Stephen gave an excellent comment regarding Guillain-Barre syndrome and I don’t think I can add anything to it except to reiterate that it is a “syndrome” and not a distinct disease. Again, he makes that point clear.

  2. El says:

    Respectfully, I must disagree with your entire premise in regards to the Zika virus being the actual cause of microcephaly. The Zika virus has been around for a great many years and is really nothing new. It has never been linked to causing microcephaly previous to now.
    In these areas where the sudden rise of microcephaly has occurred, there have also been massive doses of chemicals sprayed, many with at least five ingredients banned in most countries due to them causing many health issues, including but not limited to Microcephaly. WHO is covering up the fact that these places have been sprayed so heavily with these toxic chemicals by blaming it on the mosquitoes and zika when zika has been around for many, many years and has never before been known to cause microcephaly. Sorry, but in this case the data and scientific data does not add up

    • The only problem with your logic is lack of evidence EL.
      Microcephaly cases closely follow outbreaks regionally. There is not pattern that follows spraying of toxic chemicals(whatever that mean). Or are you arguing that the chemical were utilized in exactly the same pattern as the outbreaks??? I assume you mean pesticides or fertilizers. In the case of pesticides you see the exact opposites. Reduced zika outbreaks in areas that teat for mosquitoes.
      THe WHO doesn’t discount the possibility of other outside factors including environmental toxins “Scientists do not exclude the possibility that other factors may combine with Zika virus infection to cause neurological disorders but more research is needed before any conclusions in this area can be reached.” Directly from WHO q&A site.

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