Zika Virus and Its Concerning Media Portrayal

The Zika virus—which has quickly spread around the globe since late last year—became a local issue when Washington’s first case was diagnosed on Feb. 22. But with media coverage of the disease ranging from relaxed warnings to panic-induced reports, it can be difficult to discern whether the virus is a real cause for concern.

Most of us remember Ebola, the disease that caused two deaths in the United States and killed over 10 thousand worldwide in 2014. The issue quickly became overblown as it related to the U.S.—leading to the nickname “Fearbola”—as the media coverage of it spread panic across the country while simultaneously minimizing its massive impact around the world, specifically in West Africa.

Some students and faculty at Seattle University believe that the media’s fear-mongering is often more contagious and dangerous than these diseases themselves.

Seattle University biology major Nate Wylie, a senior, isn’t worried about becoming infected. However, he is still concerned about how the media has reported on the virus, particularly in relation to its connection with pregnant women and potential birth defects.

“News stories seem to be blatantly admitting that the virus is not a known cause of the birth defect, while at the same time generating fear with stories and warnings for pregnant women,” Wylie said. “A causal relationship between the Zika virus and microcephaly is suspected, but has not been confirmed.”

Dr. Karen Cowgill, an assistant professor in the College of Nursing and an infectious disease epidemiologist, isn’t particularly worried about Zika, but said she feels that the public needs to know more about its severity.

“Zika is one of the varieties of mosquito-born viruses, and they all occur on a spectrum. The vast majority of people who are infected have mild symptoms or sometimes even no symptoms at all,” Cowgill said. “But then you do have people on the other end of the spectrum who have really serious symptoms and it’s looking like maybe there’s an association between Zika and microcephaly.”

The Zika virus infection is suspected to be transmitted via the Aedes mosquito—which is not native to Washington—and is passed from a pregnant mother to their fetus. Some cases even suggest it can be sexually transmitted through semen. Symptoms include a mild fever, rashes, conjunctivitis and muscle pain, lasting about a week. The virus rarely requires a hospital stay nor leads to death except under extreme circumstances.

The real problem lies in a correlation between the Zika virus and microcephaly—as both Wylie and Cowgill noted—which is an abnormal birth defect where babies are born with smaller than usual heads, leading to a slew of developmental issues. In Latin American countries—particularly Brazil and El Salvador—this issue has grown prominent, as thousands of cases have been reported.

In El Salvador, a nation-wide ban on pregnancy took effect in January. Abortion is also banned and birth control is growing exceedingly hard to come by.

Communications professor Julie Homchick doesn’t like to use the word sensationalized when it comes to situations like this, but believes there might be a problem in the way the information on the virus is being reported because much of it still lies within the realm of mystery; we simply do not know everything there is to know.

“I think with news coverage with stuff like this, it’s often pretty cyclical, where you do have some reporting obligations to share this information with the public; that’s good journalistic practice. If there’s some potential risk, the public needs to know about it,” Homchick said. “At the same time, it’s increasingly the case that science writers in journalism aren’t trained scientists, and it used to be the case that they were because the news system has been crunched so much.”

Homchick also said the first case of the Zika virus being reported in Michigan on Feb. 25, and credits the reporters for acknowledging that the citizens should not be be hysterical over it.

“I think there’s probably public demand for information, organizations want to be as transparent as possible,” Homchick said. “The public is also partly responsible for having headline-reading knee-jerk reactions.”

The likeliness of flu-like pandemic is seemingly next to none, considering the species of mosquito that spreads it does not reside in Washington.

Much information about the disease remains unknown. On Feb. 29, a Spokane woman infected with the virus gave birth to her child, who not only tested negatively for microcephaly, but also showed no signs of being infected with the virus.

Regularly washing hands and—unless you are pregnant—spraying on some mosquito repellant should keep from becoming infected.

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