What is the Zika Virus?
This time last year, it was all about Ebola. Today, one little mosquito has made Zika a household name. Although this virus was first discovered back in 1947 in the forests of Uganda, it was relatively unheard of until it began to spread in 2007.
As with any new disease or virus, fear and misinformation abounds. In fact, a recent survey found that a full one third of all respondents erroneously believe that GM (genetically modified) mosquitoes are to blame.
This survey, just released by the University of Pennsylvania, was conducted by phone and involved slightly more than 1,000 participants. The survey had 8 questions about Zika, how it is spread, as well as their overall concern about this virus. Although some of the questions might be considered to be “leading” by suggesting that a high level of government might be involved in the development of Zika, a full 91% did know that it was mosquitoes that were responsible for the spreading the virus, but less than half of all participants knew that Brazil was the country that had the largest outbreak. Also, a shocking 20% of respondents believed you could contact Zika simply by sitting near an infected person! Zika is mainly transmitted via mosquitoes but it could be possible (but not yet proven) that this virus could be spread through sexual contact. (1)
Is Zika caused by Genetically Modified mosquitos?
What is perhaps most shocking in this information age is that 35% of the participants in this study stated that they believed that GM mosquitoes were to blame for the spread of this virus. This is most likely because of a story that broke in January of 2016 which found that a biotech company called Oxitec, was conducting tests involving GM mosquitoes in Brazil. It is hopeful that these GM insects will breed with wild mosquitoes. The larvae of these couplings will produce offspring that never reach sexual maturity, causing a reduction in all types of mosquitoes, including those that carry Zika and other diseases. (2)
The idea that GM mosquitoes are somehow to blame is quite shocking when you consider that Brazil is considering using these little bugs to stop the spread of Zika.
Out of all the thousands of mosquitoes floating around the planet today, how did the Aedes Aegypti become such an efficient killer?
Aedes Aegypti mosquito
It is the Aedes mosquito that has fueled a long, long list of epidemics around the globe. This tiny little blood sucker is the reason why the French abandoned construction of the Panama Canal in the late 1890’s, it spread yellow fever to thousands during the Spanish-American war, and this same mosquito was also responsible for the yellow fever outbreaks in New Orleans in the 19th century.
The key to the Aedes mosquito is in its ability to adapt and change.
Aedes mosquitoes is found in parts of the world that about one half of the human population calls home. They have learned how to adapt and live with their prey. They feed almost exclusively on humans. They can breed in the tiniest drops of water, including bottle top caps, plastic bags, and discarded electronics. One of the ways this insect has evolved is that they no longer need a constant source of water in which to lay their eggs. The eggs of the Aedes mosquito can sit around for as long as one year, just waiting for the rains to return, so they can hatch. The eggs are also covered in a super sticky kind of “super glue”, which means they can hang on to the insides of old tires, discarded bottles, cans, even the inside edge of a bird bath or rain gutter.
Unlike other species of mosquitoes, Aedes Aegypti are notorious for being daytime biters. They will hide under beds, in closets, even the clothing or towels set outside to dry. This tiny little insect is also famous for its back door attacks. Rather than flying where they can be seen, they approach their meal from behind, taking a sip of blood from an ankle or elbow, then flying off to bite another victim before you even realize you were bitten! They also do not have a powerful “bite”, so most people are completely unaware that they were bitten until they start scratching the spot. This little sip and run insect can, therefore, infect dozens of people in a single day before it heads out to lay anywhere between 100 to 200 eggs. This species of mosquito likes to lay a set of eggs after every meal. Not every week, not every month, but after every meal!
Humans have been fighting this mosquito for at least a century and cursing at it even longer than that.
We know so much about this species, so why is it that so much misinformation is being spread about this mosquito and the diseases, especially Zika, that it spreads?
Zika Virus Rumors
What kinds of rumors and misinformation are we talking about? Let’s take a hard look at both the facts and fiction, as well as what is not currently known, about this virus.
Zika is Carried by Humans and Mosquitoes
True. Zika is a virus similar in nature to yellow fever, Dengue, and West Nile Virus. All of these viruses are caused by one type of mosquito; the Aedes Aegypti. Although people can be infected with the virus, they don’t pass it to humans directly, however, they do pass it on to other mosquitoes, who then pass it on to other humans. (3)
Zika can be Transmitted Sexually
True. Although it appears that this is extremely rare, it is possible. One person in Texas became infected after having unprotected sex with someone who had traveled to Brazil. (4) Always take precautions and use condoms if you have any doubts about whether or not you or your partner might be infected.
An Insecticide or Larvicide Produced by Monsanto is to Blame for Zika
False. First, the insecticide in question, pyriproxyfen, isn’t even made by Monsanto, but by Sumitomo Corporation. Even if you want to dismiss the mistake in the manufacturer, the story, which was published in the online journal Tech Times, stated that the “study” involved was performed by the University Network of Environment and Health in Argentina. The problem is that it is difficult to determine how this “study” was conducted since the doctors in this group conducted no lab tests and no epidemiological studies. (5)
Microcephaly is Caused by the Tdap Vaccine
False. There are numerous possible causes of microcephaly (6), the Tdap vaccine is not one of them. When you consider that microcephaly generally starts in the first trimester of pregnancy and that the Tdap (whooping cough) vaccine is sometimes given to pregnant mothers in the third trimester, the lack of connection is clear. (7)
Zika Also Causes Guillian-Barre Syndrome
Unknown. Guillian-Barre is a rare neurological disorder that can develop after a wide range of infections. There are currently no studies to prove that this is not true, however, it’s important to note that the French Polynesian islands had a severe Zika outbreak in 2013. They also had a sharp increase in the number of cases of Guillian-Barre syndrome. Brazil has also experienced an increase in cases since their Zika outbreak, which started in May of 2015. (7)
Symptoms of Zika are Usually Very Mild
True. In fact, most people who become infected are not even aware of it. The most common symptoms are a fever and rash. Other symptoms are pain behind the eyes, headaches, and conjunctivitis. There are currently no treatments, but over the counter pain remedies should help. Symptoms last only 2 to 7 days. (8)
If You Go to an Infected Country, You Should Wait 7 Years to Get Pregnant
False. We don’t know where this one got started, but the lifespan of a virus is fairly short. If you should visit a country with a high infection rate, even if you have no symptoms, it would be a good idea to wait for 3 to 4 weeks before trying to conceive a child. Men should wear condoms during this time to ensure they do not pass on the virus to their partners. After this time, if you were infected, the virus will have died and passed out of your system. (9)
There is No Vaccine for Protection from Zika
True. At the time of this writing, there is no vaccine for Zika. There is a plan to fast-track a vaccine, but the World Health Organization states that even though there are several companies working on a vaccine, at best human trials are at least 18 months away. Approval and production will take another 18 to 24 months. This is assuming, of course, that the trials are successful. Don’t look for a vaccine for at least a few years. (10)
Zika is Here in the United States
Not Exactly. People from all over the US are traveling to areas where Zika is present. They become infected while traveling, then bring the virus back home with them. The very first travel related infection was back in 2007 but the number of cases are growing rapidly. Zika infected mosquitoes have only been found in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, not on the mainland. As of this writing, the CDC reports that they have 82 travel related cases of people being infected with the Zika virus.
DEET Does Not Work Against Mosquitoes Infected with Zika
False. To understand why this is not true, you need to understand how DEET works. All mosquitoes find humans through body heat, carbon dioxide, and the smell of our sweat. Some scientists believe that mosquitoes can even find us from the scent of our blood, but this hasn’t been proven. DEET works by hiding our scent, including the scent of carbon dioxide, from mosquitoes. Many people mistakenly believe that DEET is an insect poison. DEET confuses mosquitoes and other biting insects by, literally, hiding us in plain sight. Using DEET does not mean you will NEVER be bitten, but it greatly reduces your chances of it. Your best prevention from any type of mosquito carried disease is to cover up your skin as much as possible and use a DEET based spray on all exposed skin. Also, sleep under a mosquito net at night. (12)
You Can Get Zika from a Blood Transfusion
True. Technically, you can contract Zika from a blood transfusion if the donor was infected. One city in Brazil did report that they thought two persons became infected after receiving a blood transfusion, however, this has not been confirmed. Most countries are now trying to prevent contamination of the blood supply by asking persons who have traveled to high risk areas to wait at least 4 weeks before donating blood.
Zika is a Plan by the Governments in Poor Countries to Decrease the Population
False. These types of conspiracy theories pop up with every new epidemic or the spread of a new virus. This same type of theory was said about H1N1 and Ebola. The truth always emerges after a period of time when people see that although these viruses did take thousands of lives, it was hardly the holocaust of millions that people were told were going to die. Keep in mind that these types of outrages statements are nothing more than “click-bait”. To get you to buy newspapers, magazines, and click on articles found on certain websites, some people are willing to say just about anything and play on the fears some people have regarding some type of “zombie apocalypse.” (13)
Will I get Zika?
This is the $64,000 question. Unless you travel to a high-risk country and do nothing to protect yourself, your risk is very, very small. Since these mosquitoes can carry other types of disease, including yellow fever, dengue, and Chikungunya, you would be wise to protect yourself from mosquitoes if you live in the warm, southern states of the US, such as Louisiana and Florida. Remove as much standing water as much as possible to prevent mosquitoes from breeding. In the case of fountains, birdbaths, and ponds, there are chemicals you can buy which will prevent mosquito larvae from hatching. Cover up your skin as much as possible and use a DEET based insect repellent.
A current list of all countries considered to be a high risk for Zika can be found here.
A current list of the best insect repellents, according to Consumer Reports can be found here.