Zika: A Different Perspective
On a recent trip home to Puerto Rico, I was faced with the reality of Zika in the land where I was born and I was challenged with a new perspective. Walking off the airplane, I saw signs warning pregnant women of the possible dangers of a stay in Puerto Rico. However, these signs were the only reminders of a virus feared by so many. When visiting my aunt, she sprayed me down with OFF when we went out on the patio but she has been doing this for as long as I can remember. At my brother’s wedding, the bar included a bottle of pitorro, Puerto Rican moonshine, named “Zika Repellant” and said it was guaranteed to work better than OFF bug spray. It seemed as though many of the Puerto Ricans were using humor as their shield from Zika and that their concerns were much lower than that of many Americans. I know more research needs to be done in order to better understand Zika and rid ourselves of the Zika virus, but my recent trip to Puerto Rico made me question my previous notions.
This very journal is guilty of hyping up Zika. In fact, we have an entire section dedicated to it on our home page. We fail to talk about the actual experiences that people are going through when it comes to Zika and instead discuss statistics and worst-case scenarios. It’s time to clear the air and point out the real concerns of a Zika epidemic.
Zika is a virus transmitted via mosquito bite or sexual intercourse. Fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes are the most common symptoms. Muscle pain and headaches are other symptoms that may be present. Very much like the flu, Zika symptoms usually last less than a week.1 The key fact that most people are unaware of is that only about 1 in 5 people infected with Zika will experience symptoms: symptoms that are comparable to the flu.
The most valid concern is for pregnant women in their first trimester. As many know, there is a strong connection between Zika and cases of microcephaly. However, not every woman affected by Zika will automatically have a child with microcephaly. An estimation made by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in August 2016 suggests that up to 10,300 woman in Puerto Rico could be infected with Zika. Out of those 10,300 woman, “between 100 and 270 babies could be born with microcephaly through mid-2017”. Up until this point, however, only one microcephaly case has been reported in Puerto Rico. This means that there is only an estimated 1.0% to 2.6% possible cases of microcephaly.5 Any case of microcephaly is too many cases of microcephaly, however, the reality of its prevalence is that it is significantly less than what is portrayed in the media. The pregnant or soon-to-be pregnant population should be the source of our main focus for finding ways to avoid effects caused by Zika.
The first Zika death in Puerto Rico occurred in April of 2016, although the first appearance of the virus in Puerto Rico was found in December of 2015. The gentleman, a 70 year old man, developed a rare but known immune disorder as a side effect from Zika known as thrombocytopenic pupura. There is evidence, however, that other complications unrelated to Zika may have contributed to his death.4 In August of 2016, the first death from Zika-related Guillian-Barre Syndrome (GBS), a form of paralysis, was reported in Puerto Rico. The man was between the ages of 35 and 45 years old, a highly unusual age for victims of Zika.3 Thus far, these two cases are the only two reported deaths out of the 3.5 million residents on the island.
In going back home this weekend, I was very surprised to see there was not much talk surrounding the issue of growing Zika numbers. My confusion, as you may imagine, now lays with why there seemed to be lack of discussion comparatively to the the US news and media outlets. Is Puerto Rico in for a rude awakening? Have they become detached from the situation due to lack of any government action? Were there more interesting topics that deterred talk about Zika? My own cousins had Zika and seemed to lack any concern because they soon got better and went back to their normal lives. Puerto Rico, if anything, is concerned most about Zika in relation to the effect it is having on their tourism industry. Puerto Rico has just recently started to come out of the 2008 recession that the US seems to have already forgotten about. In January, hotel registrations had risen to a positive revenue of about 10.9% higher from the previous year, but by March, hotel registrations dropped to negative revenues.2 There is some cognitive dissonance between how media outlets are portraying Zika and what issues Puerto Ricans seem to be currently experiencing.
Zika is everywhere in the news, but many don’t know anything about it except that they feel scared. Eventually, Zika may extend its reach further into the US than Miami, and we should start preparing to handle the effect it may have on growing families. Zika is something that needs more research but we also need to be better informed on how it is currently affecting individuals. When we are not taking into account the experiences of real people in this situation, we can in effect cause more damage than the virus itself. Puerto Rico’s already poor economic system is struggling with the added burden of less tourism, one of the biggest sources of income on the island. I am confused now, more than ever, on whether or not there should be increased or decreased concern surrounding Zika. My personal experiences with Zika thus far are telling me something different that what the news outlets are saying and I wonder how the future impact of Zika may differ from the current impact. This is the perfect example of a case in which media coverage surrounding science has driven society to view things in a light that may be starkly contrasted from the reality. It is time for us to now, as society, instead drive science in the right direction.
1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2016. Accessed November 19, 2016. http://www.cdc.gov/zika/symptoms/symptoms.html.
2. Herrera, Chabeli. "Puerto Rico's Tourism Industry Was Stung by Zika. Could It Happen in Miami?" Miamiherald. Accessed November 19, 2016. http://www.miamiherald.com/news/business/biz-monday/article95278142.html.
3. NBCNews. 2016. "A Man Died from Guillain-Barre Syndrome Caused by Zika in Puerto Rico." NBC News. Accessed November 19, 2016. http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/zika-virus-outbreak/man-dies-zika-related-paralysis-puerto-rico-n634776.
4. NBCNews. 2016. "U.S. Reports First Zika Virus Death, in Puerto Rico." NBC News. Accessed November 19, 2016. http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/zika-virus-outbreak/u-s-records-first-zika-virus-death-puerto-rico-n564886.
5. "Zika Virus Spreading Rapidly across Puerto Rico." PBS. Accessed November 19, 2016. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/zika-virus-spreading-rapidly-across-puerto-rico/.