Published March 26, 2017
My favorite late night television host of all time was David Letterman. He was on the air for 33 years,...
— William Wilberforce
One of the problems with the current and evolving discussion within within the global health community and the media about the Zika virus (… Have you seen all those cockeyed, sensationalistic headlines?) is the assumption that the virus is dangerous and we should all be worried about its spread. This is similar to what has occurred with the poliovirus. The fact is that the vast portion of the people who have either of these two viruses exhibit no symptoms or have very mild symptoms.
In the case of polio, 95% of the people who have the poliovirus show no symptoms at all.1 Less than 1% of those who have the poliovirus will develop any sort of paralysis, and of those small number of cases less than 10% result in death.2 The vast number of people who have the poliovirus just go about their daily lives as if nothing. Still, the poliovirus has been made out to be a monster which we must attack and destroy.
Is it possible that we may be doing the same thing now with Zika, and are unnecessarily overreacting out of a sense of fear of the unknown? Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff has already publicly declared war on Zika and the mosquitoes that carry the virus.
We must wage war against the Aedes aegypti, the vector of dengue, of chikungunya and of Zika.
While we do not have a vaccine against the Zika virus, the war must be concentrated on the elimination of breeding grounds for the mosquito. Getting rid of Zika is the responsibility of all of us.3
And yet, about 80% of people who have Zika will not develop symptoms. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about one out of every five people infected with the virus will become ill, and the illness is usually “mild with symptoms lasting for several days to a week.”4 The most common symptoms of the virus are “fever, rash, joint pain, or conjunctivitis (red eyes).”4 Hardly something monstrous to fear—much less declare war on.
The media, along with many within the scientific, medical and public health communities, have irresponsibly pushed the idea that a virus is like a terrorist—something threatening that we must attack and destroy before it attacks and kills us. The same thoroughly unscientific mentality has been disseminated widely with regard to bacteria, disease, and fever.
The truth is that we carry lots of viruses within us all the time, and they don’t harm us in the least bit. And some of them actually do good things for us. “Viruses, like bacteria, can be important beneficial microbes in human health and in agriculture,”5 notes Marilyn Roossinck, PhD, who is a professor of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology and Biology at Pennsylvania State University at University Park.
Viruses are beyond a doubt the coolest things I have ever encountered. They do truly amazing things with very little genetic information. I was always a little disturbed at the bad rap they get, so it was very exciting for me to find good ones.5
Take, for example, what chiropractor Ben Kim of Toronto, Canada says about the viruses that cause the common cold and the flu. According to Dr. Kim:
By and large, the viruses that cause the common cold and the flu infect mainly your weakest cells; cells that are already burdened with excessive waste products and toxins are most likely to allow viruses to infect them. These are cells that you want to get rid of anyway, to be replaced by new, healthy cells. So in the big scheme of things, a cold or flu is a natural event that can allow your body to purge itself of old and damaged cells that, in the absence of viral infection, would normally take much longer to identify, destroy, and eliminate.6
While we don’t know nearly as much about viruses as we do bacteria, the assumption that having a virus is an inherently bad thing is a false one, and clearly not based on science.
So instead of almost exclusively posing questions to public health officials and medical researchers involved in the Zica-microcephaly global health emergency such as “Do we know what’s causing the spread of the Zika virus?” and “What can we do to combat it?” … questions that assume we have correctly identified the enemy and must now engage and defeat it by all means possible, perhaps the media might consider thinking out of the box a little.
Maybe mix it up a bit with questions like… “Why are we assuming that Zika is any threat to us at all?” and “What other things going on in Brazil could be causing the epidemic of microcephaly there?” Or even… “Have many of the microcephaly cases in Brazil been misdiagnosed, and thus is there an epidemic there at all?”
Not everything bad that happens in the world is due to a virus.
1 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Public Health Image Library (PHIL). phil.CDC.gov.
2 Global Health. Global Health Topics: Polio. GlobalHealth.gov.
3 Eisenhammer S. Brazil’s Rousseff declares war on mosquito spreading Zika virus. Reuters Jan. 27, 2016.
4 CDC. Zika Virus: Symptoms, Diagnosis, & Treatment. CDC.gov.
5 Stallard B. Viruses: They’re Not All Bad, Says Expert. Nature World News May 13, 2015.
6 Kim B. What Most Doctors Won’t Tell You About Colds and Flus. DrBenKim.com Mar. 5. 2014.