TL;DR – All of us need to play our part in fighting Zika.
If you are in the business of manufacturing or selling mosquito repellent, you’re probably laughing your way to the bank. But if you are stall holder in any of the food centers in Sims Drive or Aljunied Crescent, you are probably quite worried about your livelihood.
Since news of Zika outbreak in Singapore broke, sales of mosquito repellent products have soared. Conversely, the news has made people avoid going outdoors, even for lunch. As a result, the food centers in Sims Drive and Aljunied Crescents have turned into virtual ghost towns.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you would have probably heard about Zika. You might also have been quite freaked out by news of Zika too. Many politicians in Singapore have come out to try to assuage Singaporeans’ concerns about Zika. PM Lee has posted this on his Facebook page:
A Case of Haters Gonna Hate?
But… there are, as usual, some Singaporeans who are skeptical of anything that our politicians say. If the whole world is so worried about it, surely it can’t just be a mild disease right? Even the constant communication from the ministers, the MPs (including those from the opposition party), and the World Health Organization about how Singapore is a role model in fighting Zika didn’t do anything to assure those people who have allowed pessimism and negativity take root in their core.
The G’s outreach effort, the fogging exercises, and the offer of free checks for all pregnant women didn’t seem to allay their fears.
Some of these naysayers have pointed to a recent study which suggested that Zika could cause damage in adult brains. Surely all of us ought to be scared shitless about Zika!
So, What are the Studies Saying?
Look closer at the reports about that recent study. What does it actually say? According to The Atlantic:
“They found the virus could target the rodents’ neural progenitor cells, which could result in cell death and impaired brain functioning. The findings are preliminary and have not been observed in humans, but they suggest the Zika virus may be more complicated than scientists understand now.”
The research findings are preliminary. Even the researchers themselves are tentative about the actual impact of the Zika virus on the brains of adult rodents. They have stated that the findings have not been observed in humans.
In other words, while the research suggests that the virus is more complicated than our current understanding of it, the research should not be taken to mean that the Zika virus will definitely cause long term damage to adults. Why so?
Because the Sujan Shresta, co-author of that study said so:
“We don’t know what this [finding] would mean in terms of human diseases, or if cognitive [brain] behaviors of an individual could be impacted after infection”
Also, the actual research paper also has this caveat:
“The degree to which IFN-deficient mice model the extent and severity of flavivirus infection in humans is unknown. We recognize that healthy humans may be able to mount an effective antiviral response and prevent entry into the CNS (central nervous system)”
In plain English, this is as good as saying that the researchers aren’t sure if the research conducted on mice will translate to similar findings in humans. In other words, it’s plain irresponsible to raise alarm about the long-term impact of the Zika virus on adult humans without clearly emphasizing the caveats, qualifiers and limitations of the research.
What about the Risk to Pregnant Women & their Babies?
In fact, we also don’t know what the actual impact on the foetus if a pregnant woman is infected with Zika. Various studies suggest that the foetus is only at risk if the lady is infected with Zika during the first trimester of pregnancy. And even then, it is estimated that only between 1% and 13% of foetuses will develop microcephaly.
And even this supposed link between Zika and microcephaly in babies isn’t confirmed. WHO director-general Margaret Chan, said this:
“… a causal link between Zika infection in pregnancy and microcephaly — and I must emphasize — has not been established…”
Zika has been around in some parts of the world for quite a while. For instance, there have been past Zika epidemics in Argentina and Columbia. Apparently, at one point in time, up to 75% of Argentinians were infected with Zika. But there weren’t cases of Zika-linked microcephaly.
Similarly for Columbia, where up to 100,000 Zika cases were recorded. Updates from the World Health Organisation (WHO) showed in July that there were only 21 microcephaly births births in Columbia.
Hang on. If that is the case, then why all this hooha about Zika? Remember it all started when there were reports of cases of microcephaly in Brazil that was supposedly linked to the Zika virus? There are reports that suggest that the microcephaly in Brazil isn’t caused by Zika, but by a larvicide (i.e. a chemical that is meant to kill mosquito larvae) that the Brazilian government introduced into Brazil’s drinking water.
There Might be a Cure Soon?
In any case, a group of researchers from Florida State University, Johns Hopkins University and the National Institutes of Health have found existing drug compounds that can stop Zika from replicating in the body.
One of the compounds is the basis for a drug called Nicolsamide, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved drug that showed no danger to pregnant women.
This means that the compound can form the basis for a drug that could theoretically be prescribed by a doctor today to treat Zika. However, tests are still needed to determine a specific treatment regimen for the infection.
To Panic or Not to Panic?
In other words, while we do need to find out more about Zika, and definitely need to take precautions to reduce our own risks of getting infected, the last thing we should do is panic. It would be truly tragic if we let our own lack of understanding of this virus disrupt our lives.
So perhaps the most fearsome thing about Zika is not the virus, nor its effects. Rather, perhaps the most fearsome thing about Zika is the fear of Zika itself.
For now, I urge fellow Singaporeans to stay alert, but not over-do things. And oh, stay protected, but don’t over-buy those mozzie patches and repellent, OK? As FairPrice is assuring all that the supermarket chain is ensuring stocks are sufficient, its CEO has said this,
“We will continue to bring stocks in regularly. But if all of us buy ten times more than what we need, no matter how much we bring in, it’s going to be sold out very quickly.”