Last week was a relatively quiet week for news coming out of Brazil, with the exception of stories related to the Zika outbreak, but more on that later. The Brazilian press relatively quiet because it was carnival, which translates into an entire week off for most Brazilians. So while the bad news kept rolling in, most people were either reveling in the many celebrations all around the country or getting as far away from them as possible and relaxing somewhere on the beach or in the countryside.
Meanwhile, the flood of bad economic news continued and the myriad corruption investigations kept on sputtering forward. The scandal is getting closer and closer to former president Lula, with several properties allegedly owned by him or his family members coming under investigation.
Now coming back to the biggest story of the week: Zika. The news coverage has been quite alarmist, but the truth is that not much is known about this virus. As a result, the media is filling in the blanks with speculation. A better approach would be to take a step back and just examine the facts.
First, Zika is not Ebola. It is not even the flu. Most people who get it don't even show any symptoms. When they do appear, they tend to be pretty mild: a fever, maybe a rash or some achy joints. So for the vast majority of people, getting Zika is not terribly serious. This goes a long way toward explaining why last week, despite the frantic media coverage, millions of scantily clad Brazilians shrugged off fear of being bitten by mosquitoes and took to the streets to celebrate carnival. As stated by one reveler, “Let’s be honest: Brazilians have far bigger problems than Zika.”
The main fear associated with Zika has to do with its effect on pregnant women. It has been linked to the greater incidence of a birth defect called microcephaly, which has been on the rise in Brazil among the newborn babies of infected mothers. However, the link between the two has not been proven. At this point it is important to remember, as anyone who has taken a statistics class could tell you, that correlation does not equal causation. In light of the scientific consensus that more research is needed, the Brazilian health minister’s recent proclamation regarding the “absolute certainty” of the link can be thought of as a bit premature, at best. Given all of the Brazilian government’s problems with regard to corruption and ineptitude, one could be forgiven for questioning their credibility.
The notion that there is something else going on here is supported by the fact that Zika has been around for a long time in Asia and Africa and has never been associated with birth defects. Furthermore, there is evidence that the beginning of the rise in microcephaly in Brazil predates the Zika outbreak. And although the Zika epidemic has spread beyond Brazil to the Americas as a whole, microcephaly seems to be predominantly limited to the northeast of Brazil. For example, there have been no cases of microcephaly in Colombia, despite the fact that 2100 pregnant women have been infected. So it looks like something different is happening in Brazil, although what exactly that may be remains unclear.
Aiming to fill this vacuum, different proposals have been circulating on the internet. There are theories regarding the role of genetically modified mosquitoes or chemical insecticides in propagating the birth defects. However, at this point, this is all pure speculation.
Further complicating the matter, due to a policy that restricts the sending of genetic samples abroad, Brazil has not been sharing Zika data, so it is difficult to obtain an objective external assessment. Promising news on this front is the announcement of joint efforts between Brazilian and American researchers to develop a Zika vaccine. Hopefully, these efforts will lead to more insights.