Science editor separates Zika facts from fiction

POSTED: 02/23/16 7:37 PM

 

St. Maarten News – The Zika hype has sparked a flurry of stories about the origin of the virus, its symptoms and its threats to public health. The Zika-scare had linked the virus to microcephaly, the paralyzing syndrome Guillain-Barré; the cause of the Zika outbreak in Brazil has been linked to Monsanto and to pyriproxyfen, a pesticide used to exterminate mosquito larvae. Maarten Keulemans, science editor of the Volkskrant analyzed the hype in an attempt to separate facts from fiction.

Keulemans notes that the term ‘linked to’ only establishes suspicions, not facts. So it is not certain that the Zika virus causes microcephaly, or that Monsanto is the bad apple in this story.

A group of ‘doctors from the sprayed villages’ as they call themselves, claim that deformed babies are not due to the Zika virus but to Monsanto, the global pesticide and genetically modified seeds company. “In Brazil a new pesticide has been added to the drinking water, designed to combat mosquito larvae. That is the real cause,” these doctors claim.

Indeed, Brazil has added this pesticide called pyriproxyfen to the drinking water; this poison prevents mosquito larvae from becoming adults. Keulemans notes that the same product has been used for twenty years in forty different countries – among them the Netherlands, France, Denmark and Spain – and there never was any problem. Brazil uses it since 2004 and started in 2014 to add it to drinking water in some regions.

Pyriproxyfen has been finely tuned to combat mosquito larvae according to Keulemans. It only becomes harmful to mammals in very high doses. “In Brazil you would have to drink a thousand liters of treated water a day to get into the danger zone,” he writes.

Does the introduction of the poison in the drinking water coincide with the outbreak of Zika? No, says Keulemans. Recife is the epicenter of the outbreak and Brazil does not use the poison in this place.

Here is another urban legend: Monsanto administers pyriproxyfen in Brazil. Incorrect, Keulemans points out. Not Monsanto, but the World Health Organization does this with the objective to improve public health, not to make money. Pyriproxyfen is not a Monsanto-product either. The producer is a Japanese company called Sumitomo – and no, that is not a Monsanto-subsidiary.

The link between Zika and microcephaly is not one hundred percent solid. In Brazilian regions where the virus is active, microcephaly has jumped 20 percent, so it is reasonable to suspect the virus. Keulemans notes that microcephaly also occurs without the virus. The conditions has several possible causes – from other viral infections and bad luck to environmental factors.

In this sense, Keulemans, writes, the comparison with smoking and lung cancer comes to mind. The link is statistical but there are smokers who do not get lung cancer and there are non-smokers who do. The larger picture shows of course that in nine cases out of ten lung cancer occurs in smokers.

The current Zika virus stems from French Polynesia, a group of islands in the Pacific Ocean of which Tahiti is the most well-known. The virus caused an increase in patients with Guillain-Barre; there were also deformed babies, but that did not immediately attract the attention it received in Brazil. That makes sense: French Polynesia has just 260,000 inhabitants, versus 205 million in Brazil.

The virus was discovered for the first time in Africa, in 1947. Experts think that the African population has become resistant to the virus, something that is still lacking in Brazilians.

Keulemans furthermore notes that the number of microcephaly-cases in Brazil is overestimated. Every parent that gives birth to a baby with a small head immediately links it to Zika, but that is not always the case. Researchers looked at one thousand ‘suspect’ babies and found that almost two-third of them were perfectly healthy.

Experts have dismissed the link between Zika and pyriproxyfen as a fable. “Complete nonsense and even damaging to make anti-mosquito products suspect in an area that is rife with mosquito diseases,” Keulemans notes.

The author writes that the commotion about Zika and pyriproxyfen finds its roots in a report from an Argentinian organization called “doctors of the sprayed villages.”

Keulemans is familiar with this organization. Recently he checked out one of its more outlandish claims – that tampons and sanitary towels had been contaminated with Monsanto’s pesticide glyphosate. “That was incorrect, but the claim offered an insight in how these doctors operate. They did not have official and verifiable publications and they did not answer questions about their methods or their data.”

The dean of the University of Cordoba called for an integrity-investigation against the organization’s chairman, Avila Vasquez.

Forbes’ research journalist Kavin Senapathy found that the doctors club is far from a scientifically reliable organization. “This group is more of a peripheral phenomenon than reliable, more prejudiced than objective.”

Keulemans was rather shocked to find out how many Dutch media nevertheless went along with the claim that the poison is suspect. That is the ad ignorantium-argument, he writes: “You’re not entirely certain of something and therefore all the other things people say must be true.”

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