Unless you live in a cave with no internet access or television, you’ve probably heard of the Zika virus. It’s a mosquito-borne illness that’s related to dengue fever, and it’s creating a world-wide panic.
The CDC is telling us to avoid travel to countries where it’s common. The World Health Organization has declared it a public health emergency. It’s this year’s Ebola, and the media can’t get enough of it. But is it really the plague that it’s being promoted as? Or is there more to the story?
I’ll admit, when I first read about Zika I was more than a little uneasy. Like several other tropical diseases, it sounds like the stuff of horror films. And it appears even worse, in some ways, than the scariest of these. Ebola kills you, for example, and it kills you in a truly horrifying way. But Zika, the news reports say, causes horrible birth defects. Defects that might, in some cases, be a worse fate than simple death.
But the more I’ve read about Zika, the more questions arise — and I’m not the only one asking them. So let’s take a look at what the news outlets are telling us. Then let’s talk about what they’re not telling us. And last of all, let’s look at who has something to gain from the whole situation.
Here’s what the media is telling us
Microcephaly — the terrible birth defect that’s being linked to the Zika virus — is a condition in which a baby’s brain doesn’t develop normally. This results in an extremely small head. Or more specifically, a very small cranium. Microcephalic babies have normal-sized faces and features, but the rest of the head is undersized because the brain itself is undersized.
Some children with microcephaly have completely normal intelligence. But depending on the severity of the condition, it can also result in developmental delays, retardation, and worse. The most severely affected may never progress beyond the intelligence and abilities of an infant and will require round-the-clock lifelong care.
This is the condition we’re being told Zika causes.
Brazil is the center of the current situation, and here’s the official story: between 2010 and 2014, Brazil reported fewer than 200 cases of microcephaly per year. Then in 2014, the Zika virus hit and started spreading. As of 2016, Brazil has now reported nearly 4,000 cases of microcephaly and other neurological disorders, suggesting that the Zika virus somehow causes microcephaly if pregnant women are infected with it.
That sounds terrifying. But it isn’t the whole story.
Here’s what they aren’t saying
First and foremost, they’re not telling us that microcephaly was probably massively under-reported before the Zika scare.
The U.S. has a rate of between 2 and 12 cases for every 10,000 live births. That works out to between 800 to 4,800 yearly. The rate in Europe is similar. So if Brazil has the roughly the same number of cases per 10,000 births as the rest of the world, it should have some 600 and 3,700 per year.
That’s a far cry from the mere 163 reported in 2015. And it's actually right in line with the numbers being reported for 2015. This suggests that there may have been some shoddy record-keeping prior to 2015, and that maybe doctors are simply being more vigilant about reporting since the Zika scare started. And on top of that, the “4,000” number we keep hearing isn’t actual cases. It’s suspected cases.
Babies can have small heads for a lot of reasons. Having an abnormally small head doesn’t necessarily mean that the brain is underdeveloped. Finding out if that’s truly the case takes time and effort, and so far only 270 actual cases have been confirmed. Nearly 500 have been dismissed. And the others are still being studied. Even the Brazilian health authorities who track birth defects believe that the “epidemic” of microcephaly is the result of actively looking for it and over-diagnosing.
And here’s a sneaky word game you may have missed: from “microcephaly,” the news reports have progressed to “microcephaly and other disorders of the nervous system.”
That’s a big difference.
What they really mean by other disorders is Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which is associated with some viral infections. It’s also — surprise! — a known possible side effect of the Tdap vaccine. Why is this important? Because Brazil made the Tdap vaccine mandatory for all pregnant women in 2014.
What a neat coincidence.
Another reason to play word games is because the link between the virus and microcephaly just isn’t panning out so far. Fewer than a dozen microcephalic babies have shown any signs of Zika infection. That’s just not a very compelling number. It sounds a whole lot more like coincidence than cause and effect. And yet — you guessed it — the race is on to create a vaccine.
Big Pharma stands to make billions from this
So here’s where we stand: 4,000 cases of microcephaly per year is roughly the number you’d expect to find in a population the size of Brazil’s. Of these, only 270 have been confirmed. Of those 270, fewer than a dozen have been infected with Zika. Those are the facts.
But facts don’t sell vaccines and fear does. So now that the media has whipped us up into a frenzy, Big Pharma is in full-steam-ahead mode to create a vaccine against this “pandemic” disease. If it gets fast-tracked — which it will — it might be available for “emergency” use as early as mid-2017. Since it will be rushed to market, of course there won’t be time for adequate safety testing. And since it’s unethical to test new drug on pregnant women, we’ll really have no idea what kind of effect it may have on a developing baby.
Nonetheless, all women of childbearing age will be urged to get it “just in case.” After all, Zika is mosquito-borne so theoretically it could spread nearly anywhere. WHO and the CDC say — on the basis of three possible cases — that Zika is sexually transmissible, so men, teens, and preteens will be pushed to get it too.
And Big Pharma will rake in the bucks.
Here’s the bottom line: Should you take precautions if you’re traveling to an infected area? Sure.
- Use (natural) mosquito repellent.
- Sleep under mosquito netting.
- Wear clothes that cover your arms and legs.
But don’t buy the hype, and don’t panic. Look at the facts — all the facts — and decide for yourself if the threat is real.