Esteban Bustillos
Commentary

Lack of understanding of virus leads to frenzy, sense of panic

The recent spread of the Zika virus has caused the World Health Organization to declare it a global threat and has led to a media field day. Ordinary citizens are now left asking if they’re safe from this new, exotic disease.

What people may not realize is that whenever a new sickness, like Zika, emerges, people shouldn’t really be scared of the fever and rashes. Fear is often the worst symptom.

Zika, which was first identified in humans in the 1950s, started to make waves last year when cases began popping up in Brazil. Not long after, the virus was linked to babies being born with microcephaly, where the shape of the head is deformed and shrunken. This can lead to irreversible brain damage and a lifetime of struggle for victims.

What is important to note, however, is that this is simply a correlation. A definite link between Zika and the children born with these deformities has not been identified yet. While there is strong evidence to link the two together and there is a reason to be concerned for pregnant women, the threat to others isn’t that widespread.

While a certain amount of caution is needed and the need for proactive steps to combat Zika can’t be downplayed, there is a level of frenzy and confusion that has accompanied this virus. Confused people are incredibly scared that this virus can lead to death, when only 1 in 5 people who actually get the virus even exhibit symptoms, and very few are ever killed by it.

The fact that there are currently no cures or medical treatments for Zika is one of the main reasons there is so much alarm. Turn on any news station or read any publication and you’re bound to find panicked programming and articles cashing in on this frenzy as people are clamoring for any information on this new menace. It’s fear mongering at its worst — and the scariest part is that it’s all part of a vicious cycle.

When the first case of the Ebola virus in the United States broke out in late 2014, I remember just how scared some of my colleagues in the newsroom were. I remember one person even saying how they were considering leaving the country to get out of the vicinity of the virus. For a brief moment, the group of journalists around me, who were supposed to be the guardians of rationality, let their emotions get the best of them.

Instead of thinking about just how unlikely any of us were to get Ebola, we let fear overcome us. That’s dangerous for the people who are supposed to objectively report on facts and let people know exactly what’s going on.

Eventually, the Ebola craze passed and everyone moved on with their lives. Evidently, though, we still haven’t learned the lessons from that scare and begun to really understand how useless running around with half-truths about matters of public health is.

When people become scared, they grow paranoid and take brash actions, just like the ones taken when the Ebola scare hit. It began to look eerily similar to how people reacted to the AIDS crisis in the ’80s.  People began to show outright bigotry to those who had the virus and created a stigma that lasts to this day for people with HIV.

Although it may not be so severe this time around, the potential to make the same mistakes is still there. If we’re not careful, we will let this virus — which is unlikely to have the same impact in the U.S. as it has had in countries like Brazil — become the new Ebola and AIDS.

In the countries where Zika has made the biggest impact, basic commodities like mosquito nets and spraying for mosquitoes are still underdeveloped and not widespread. Here, we don’t have those same problems. Even in the first case found locally in Dallas, the virus was spread by sexual contact, not by a mosquito.

If everyone took a second to step back and realize what it is we’re actually dealing with, we would conclude that Zika, like Ebola, will probably fade away and become just another epidemiological fad that rustles feathers and will eventually enter obscurity.