Friday, February 5, 2016

Stupid and Contagious

Watching pornography, trolling carnival sites for embarrassing pics of your coworkers in fetes, or playing online Poker during work-sure the internet has enriched all our lives; but do you know it’s also full of useless and potentially dangerous junk? Take for example the current deluge of misinformation currently flooding cyberspace regarding the Zika virus.

The Zika virus is a mosquito borne virus which, though it causes mild flu like symptoms, is now being potentially linked to birthdefects such as microcephaly. This is based on reports of a current spike in incidence of microcephaly in Brazil coinciding with an outbreak of Zika there was well. Women are now being advised to delay pregnancy until more information on the effects of Zika is obtained.

The World Health Organization has considered the situation serious enough to declare Zika a “Global health emergency” and Health Minister Terrance Deyalsingh has formulated a national response which mostly involves him berating us for being “a dirty people”.  Unfortunately, stupid conspiracy theorists have also seized the opportunity to peddle anti-vaccination and anti GMO quackery.

One popular meme which went viral on Facebook and was picked up by legitimate news publications such as Britain’s Daily Mirror; suggest that the current outbreak of microcephaly is due to genetically modified mosquitoes which were released in Brazil by the firm Oxitec.

Considering the only times most of us are exposed to terminology such as ‘genetic modification’ is while watching Jurassic Park or X-Men movies, it’s understandable if the term ‘genetically modified’ conjures up horrific images of a T-Rex ripping someone's head off. Or Magneto trying to kill Wolverine. But this is not how GM technology works in real life. GM mosquitoes were devised as a way to drastically destroy the mosquito population and in so doing help fight diseases such as Dengue, ChikV and Zika.

It works like this; male mosquitoes carrying DNA resulting in a dietary supplement deficiency are released into an area. When these males mate with a female, the offspring will inherit this dominant deficiency, resulting in them dying off quickly while still young. Male mosquitoes do not bite hence these GM mosquitoes cannot pass on disease and will die off quickly themselves.

Not only is it impossible for GM mosquitoes to spread Zika, but where GM mosquitoes have been released they have been responsible for a 90% drop in the overall mosquito population. Blaming GM mosquitos for the current Zika crisis is as credible as blaming cow bites on Soucouyants. 

The other crackpot Zika theory, which can be found on popular medical fraudster sites like ‘David Avocado Wolf’, or ‘Dr. Mercola,’ and being shared on social media, says that it’s the Tdap(tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis)vaccine and not Zika, which is responsible for the current outbreak of microcephaly in Brazil. The Tdap vaccine is taken by pregnant women who understandably would prefer their children not be born with tetanus, diphtheria or pertussis.

There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that the Tdap vaccine causes microcephaly.  There also appears to be a lot of evidence to suggest that Tdap helps reduce tetanus, diphtheria or pertussis, largely because those diseases barely exist anymore.

 As the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta states, “Before vaccines, as many as 200,000 cases of diphtheria, 200,000 cases of pertussis, and hundreds of cases of tetanus, were reported in the United States each year. Since vaccination began, reports of cases for tetanus and diphtheria have dropped by about 99% and for pertussis by about 80%.”

Given the potential severe health risks Zika poses to pregnant women, and the fact that people now seem to get all their health news off memes on Facebook, it’s alarming that the Ministry of Health isn’t doing more to dispel all the misinformation about the virus.

So far the only prominent voices on Zika are either from pastors who want to remind women that they will burn in hell if they have an abortion, or from computer science teachers at UWI who despite having no medical training somehow manage to get the collection of crackpot conspiracy theories they found on the internet published in Daily Newspapers.

There is still a lot we need to learn about Zika and whether or not it is indeed linked to microcephaly. But make no mistake, people peddling anti vaccine, and anti GM Mosquito conspiracy theories are endangering people’s lives. They are a lethal virus whose stupid anti science ideas need to be stopped before they infect us all to the point where we can’t recover.

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