On the 1st of September, many people in my social network on Facebook were extremely upset about the loss of millions of honeybees in South Carolina as a result of an aerial insecticide spray intended to kill Zika-carrying mosquitos. This was indeed a great tragedy, as the bee populations have already suffered so greatly from the widespread use of insecticides in agriculture. However, I found it troubling that so many people were so willing to join in the vilification of this spraying when the goal was to prevent the spread of the Zika virus and protect human health and lives. I wrote an extensive reply, which you can read here.
That was last week. Yesterday, I found this image making the rounds on Facebook:
I don’t want to essentially rewrite my entire Facebook rant, so here are some of the things that I think are the key points:
- Zika is increasingly being found to be linked to birth defects, loss of pregnancies, and increased risk for Guillain-Barré Syndrome;
- There have been reported and confirmed cases in all US states and territories except Wyoming, Alaska, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands;
- There is no vaccine for Zika nor is there any treatment for it other than palliative treatment (i.e. reducing fever, pain, etc.);
- Zika is transmitted both by mosquito bite and via sexual contact;
- An uninfected mosquito that bites an infected person can become infected and go on to infect others;
- Almost all cases reported in the US are travel-associated, which includes cases caused by sexual transmission;
- However there is local transmission in Miami-Dade County, Florida.
There seems to be a perception of the anti-Zika sprays being an attack on bees, which can be seen on Twitter in the #SaveTheBees hashtag, where many posts are addressing the bee casualties from anti-Zika sprays (the image included above makes an appearance, for example). I find this concerning for multiple reasons.
For one, it implies to me that there is a lack of awareness in the US about the threat Zika poses, as well as the scope of the geographical areas that could be affected by it. Because Zika (and many other mosquito-born diseases) are mainly tropical diseases, I think it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking “Well, I don’t live in a tropical area, so I’m safe.” So there is this mindset of “Zika is something that happens to other people, but not me”, which I also find concerning. Not only is there the geographical aspect of perceived risk, but there is also the population aspect due to the population being most heavily hit being pregnant women. On top of that, the symptoms of Zika, in the grand scheme of things, aren’t terrible: fever, headache, joint or muscle pain, rash…all things that most anyone can expect to encounter more than once in their lives. And the symptoms can be so low-key that infected people may never even suspect that they might have Zika. So for many people, Zika does not pose an immediate threat, which I think makes it easier to focus on “hot button” issues like the massive losses of bees.
There is a hashtag on Twitter—#ZapZika—that addresses efforts to prevent Zika. For the most part, it addresses primarily small- or local-scale things, like removing standing water near your home, and the health issues highlighted are those that Zika causes for pregnant women and their fetuses. I feel that the #ZapZika discussion needs to expand beyond that into the realm of educating the public as a whole of the dangers posed by Zika and the need to fight it aggressively. I feel that if we can expand the conversation, people may be able to see that it shouldn’t be #SaveTheBees versus #ZapZika—both are extremely important issues, and both needed to be addressed for the sake of human health. But we will not be getting anywhere fast if we continue to make it an issue of one or the other.