After visiting family in Wisconsin over winter break, I returned to Venezuela temporarily abandoning my 8 month pregnant wife. Due in February with our first child, she elected to begin her maternity leave in the United States; strict anti-pregnancy airline regulations prohibited her from flying into Venezuela anyways.
At the airport I had the good fortune of running into an old friend, Jacob Kushner, an award-winning journalist who reports on immigration, economics and human rights. I learned that he began dabbling in the world of science writing; he just published an article on the resurrection of extinct species and a feature for National Geographic on a Caribbean climate change mystery. How extremely serendipitous as our Biology class was starting to research the historical context around the biological experiments that influence society. Jacob agreed to grant a skype interview with our class; the hour raced with questions about his career as a journalist, tips on the writing and interviewing process, ideas for student projects, and most importantly, advice for media consumption.
To me, one of the most memorable points of the interview was Jacob’s advice on the media’s coverage of the Zika virus. In fact, a student commented that Jacob was almost rude and seemingly dismissive of my worry about Zika and microcephaly. “Wait…” Wait was his advice. He advised to practice patience because stories that discuss breaking news are almost always incomplete. Sit back so journalists can communicate with experts, perform quality investigations, tell the story after the initial hype passes. Think CNN, a 24 hour news station constantly producing stories. The expectation is a quick turnover from the break of the story to live TV coverage, often in a matter of minutes. Sometimes in a quest for speed, they get the story wrong.
Jacob spends weeks on his pieces carefully selecting his words and contacting his sources multiple times to ensure that he is accurately sharing the information. He’s forced to; his reputation at stake each time he attaches his name to an article. Then he is fact-checked. The process takes time, but, as Mr. Kushner recommended, if you do not need the information urgently, wait and you will have access to higher quality sources.
I had a reason to worry. My wife spent 5 months of her pregnancy in Venezuela, a country whose name is tossed around with Zika. Naturally, I was concerned. It scared the beejebus out of me and my wife. I lost sleep thinking that we could have unknowingly caused permanent damage to our unborn child.
Then I saw an article a bunch of times on social media; a cousin even emailed me the article. I hesitate to share the link with you, because each click contributes to ad revenue further bolstering the website, but the site serves as a paragon of the worst type of utterly nonfactual propagation of blatant mistruths you can possibly find online.
The website suggests that a vaccine against typhoid, diphtheria and pertussis, aka TDAP, is the real culprit behind microcephaly. Upon closer examination, we can find evidence that the site is painfully unreliable. Exhibit A) Note the author: His name is a spurious “Gary TruthKings.” At the time of writing, March 4th, 2016, I notice “Gary” published nine articles. At that pace, producing any substantial story requiring a modicum of quality investigation is an impossibility. Exhibit B) The main source of Truthking’s article is Guy Crittenden’s facebook page and his quick research. He links to an anonymous article, a one-article website entitled “brazilianshrukenheadbabies.” Mr. Crittenden revealed to me that he has no idea who authored the article either. This is a red-flag: anonymous authors do not have to worry about establishing a credible reputation, nor could they face any consequences for sharing misinformation. Be skeptical. Exhibit C) Look at the other topics reported by TruthKings: “Islamic Takeover.” “Doctors Are the Problem,” and articles touting fluoridation conspiracy theories. A mere cursory glance should allow the reader to disregard the website.
So I looked into the Zika-microcephaly connection. What is the hype? Where did it come from? What is the evidence?
A Wall Street Journal article pointed to Dr. van der Linden Mota and her family of doctor’s. They noticed an increase in microcephaly cases and a retroactive investigation revealed that 70% of those women reported having rashes, itches and fevers during their pregnancy. The Zika virus was found in the placentas and brains in 4 cases. Zika and microcephaly correlate. But scientists are wary of the trap of assuming correlation equals causation. Take for example the correlation between cheese consumption and death by bed sheet entanglement.
The correlation exists but it would be silly to think one causes the other.
Reluctant to jump to conclusions, the scientific community needs more evidence to definitively determine the cause of the increase in microcephaly, but Zika was a smoking gun. Causal relationships are hard to prove and difficulty surrounds exploring the link between Zika and microcephaly for a few reasons. A) Scientists ethically cannot perform controlled clinical trials on pregnant women knowing the potential damage Zika could cause. You must wait for a pregnant woman to experience symptoms and seek medical attention before the link can be studied. B) 80% of those infected with Zika develop no symptoms. C) Fetal brain tissue is a scarce resource in laboratory settings.
More scientific research to build a confirmation will take time, but the evidence is slowly and steadily confirming the harm that Zika can cause on the unborn.
Recently published on March 4th, two scientific journal articles offered support for the Zika-microcephaly link.
The first article, shows how the Zika virus targets specific cells in vitro. In vitro means in glass, like a petri-dish, outside of a living organism. The scientists turned stem cells into cells that mimicked neuron precursors. When introduced to the Zika virus these cells experienced a high rate of infection and subsequent cell death whereas control cells, such as mature neurons, did not. This targeted and specific cell death can explain the microcephaly in Brazil.
The second study examined 88 pregnant women in Brazil, 72 of which tested positive for Zika, 16 of which were Zika-negative. All 16 Zika-negative women had normal ultrasounds. 30 of the women who tested positive justifiably declined to be monitored by an ultrasound, wishing perhaps to not know the fate of the unborn. In 29% of the 42 remaining Zika-positive women, fetal abnormalities were observed either by ultrasounds or, in 2 cases fetal death.
Both studies have limitations — like using a different strain of Zika virus in the first and small sample size in the second — but these preliminary findings continue the march towards understanding and lay the groundwork for the fight against Zika.
You may think, “What’s the harm in spreading misinformation?” There is a harm in increasing the anxiety of mothers-to-be thinking the TDAP vaccine they just received could harm their baby. There is a harm if pregnant women begin skipping vaccines that could protect their child. There is a harm if politicians listen to the controversy and misappropriate funds.
The process of being an informed citizen is a hard, complicated, life-long process requiring dedication and a discerning eye. Many people and organizations, both online and in real-life, for whatever reason, attempt to exploit your ignorance. Stay abreast of the world around you. Set a good example for your children. Value proper journalism. Support the freedom of the press. Heed Jacob’s advice to wait. And most importantly, learn to cull the poor sources and remain focused on quality.
I want to share with you an influential quote in my life found on a plaque adorning Bascom Hall of my alma mater: “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.” To believe the myth is easy. To debunk the myth took me 6 hours of my weekend.
Although I can control the content within the confines of my classroom wall, when students leave to enter the world on their own, they will be bombarded with different media sources vying for a piece of the public’s attention span. Now, more than ever, these young adults will be tasked with the responsibility of gathering knowledge so they can be informed and contributing citizens. Let us, at home and school, model the life-long practice of sifting and winnowing.
Other sources not included in the links above: Later Jacob sent me an interview given by his former boss, now a writer for the New York Times, describing his personal experience with the disease in Haiti and the media hype. A New York Times story describes the two March 4th studies. A New York Times story explains the link between rumors and epidemics.
You can follow Joe St. Peter on twitter @joestpeter. He promises not to share any conspiracy theories.