If you think 2016 has felt like the Year of the Zika Virus, you wouldn't be completely wrong. Ever since January, reports of this mysterious, poorly understood mosquito-borne disease began to migrate north from Brazil, as thousands of cases of microcephaly — a birth defect that causes abnormally small heads and brains in babies — prompted a closer look at the virus. The virus itself, too, has migrated northward, with the first cases of Zika transmission by native mosquitos confirmed to have occurred in Florida. And yet, there are plenty of tinfoil conspiracy theorists out there who believe that Zika doesn't cause microcephaly — or worse, that Zika isn't real at all. These beliefs are not only false, but perpetuating them is dangerous as well.
As soon as reports came out of Brazil of a widespread Zika virus outbreak, they were almost immediately countered by investigative "reports" espousing everything from "Zika is a hoax" to "the government manufactured Zika" to "microcephaly is caused by insecticides, not Zika." The common denominator of these investigative reports? They often appear on websites touting "natural health." And I would confidently bet you dollars to donuts that your friend who posts these "Zika is a hoax" articles on Facebook is probably an anti-vaxxer, too. But Zika is far from a hoax and its effects can be devastating.
Now, about those natural health news sites: I'm a firm believer in and recipient of complementary and alternative medicine, but there's a big difference between treating my migraines with acupuncture in addition to taking my medicine — and natural health news sites with ads like: "The #1 Trick to Destroy Your Diabetes — Results in 4 Weeks!" (And yes, that ad copy is verbatim from one such site claiming Zika is a hoax.) Here's why promoting and perpetuating the false idea that Zika is somehow created by the government or Big Pharma is downright dangerous.
Check Your Sources
The facts don't lie. To quote Stephan Jenkins of Third Eye Blind at the RNC last month: "Who here believes in science?" The list of academic, scholarly, peer-reviewed scientific studies linking Zika to microcephaly is not only long — it's growing. The link between Zika and microcephaly has been confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the World Health Organization; in fact, the WHO has a webpage devoted to dispelling Zika rumors.
Much like the sham science behind the anti-vaccination movement, the "science" that says Zika doesn't cause microcephaly is equally without factual foundation. Bottom line: If you come across a headline that makes you question whether you should check Snopes to authenticate its veracity, then maybe it's time to see if other reputable, reliable sources exist.
Misinformation Can Have Disastrous Consequences
If your friend believes that Zika is a hoax or some government-created conspiracy to promote the sale of insecticides with DEET, then chances are, they aren't taking the necessary precautions against Zika, either. Not only are they opening themselves up to possible Zika infections, they are spreading dangerous misinformation in the process.
U.S. Olympic soccer player Hope Solo was actually heckled with "Zika!" chants at the Olympic Games in Rio this week — because Solo has been unapologetic in her concerns about Zika. Solo wants to start a family, and the fact that Zika can live in the body for up to three months if she were infected means that having a baby develop microcephaly if she got pregnant is still a possibility, well after she leaves Rio. Zika is most dangerous to women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant.
Ask Yourself: What's The Risk You're Willing To Take?
At the end of the day, the most important question to ask yourself is whether or not believing and promoting the notion that Zika is a hoax is worth the risk of contracting it personally, or passing it on to your partner. Zika prevention isn't just some scheme to move buy spray off the shelves: Preventing Zika is everyone's responsibility.