Until a couple of months ago, most people in the United States had never heard of the Zika virus which has caused so much concern around the world due to the sudden “epidemic” of microcephaly cases in Brazil since around April 2015. Most had never heard of microcephaly or could tell you what it was.
Now, thanks to the media’s constant reporting about the “epidemic” and the urgent need to develop a vaccine to combat Zika, along with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recent declaration of an international public health emergency due to Zika,1 most Americans can probably at least tell you that Zika is that disease causing all those babies in Brazil to be born with shrunken heads.
During 2015, there was a total of 3,530 “suspected” cases of microcephaly reported in Brazil.2 That was a huge increase from 2014, when only 147 cases were reported. The numbers were roughly about the same during the previous four years—153 in 2010, 139 in 2011, 175 in 2012, and 167 in 2013.2
It was that dramatic rise in microcephaly cases in 2015, particularly during the second half of that year, that raised concerns among Brazil health authorities and, ultimately, drew so much international attention. From October 2015 through the end of January 2016 alone, the number of cases totaled 4,180.3 4
Interestingly, it is becoming clear that a large portion of those suspected cases of microcephaly in Brazil over the past year have been misdiagnosed and are, in fact, not microcephaly after all.
After experts scrutinized 732 of the cases they found that more than half either weren’t microcephaly, or weren’t related to Zika.
Just 270 were confirmed as microcephaly that appears to be linked to Zika or other infectious diseases, according to the latest ministry bulletin.
It’s not yet clear whether the same pattern will emerge from the rest of the 3,448 cases that Brazil has to examine.3
So, think about it. An international crisis has been declared due to an epidemic in Brazil that may not turn out to be an epidemic. Less than one-fifth of the suspected cases have been investigated, and of those more than half were either not microcephaly or were not related to the Zika virus. In fact, no causal relationship has been proven between Zika and microcephaly to begin with. There is only speculation and correlation.
According to a report by the Latin American Collaborative Study of Congenital Malformations (ECLAMC):
In summary, when we ask ourselves if there is a microcephaly epidemic in Brazil, or if there is a causal relationship between maternal infection with the [Zika virus] and children born with microcephaly, we face problems in all epidemiological steps to clarify the Rumor.5
A recent article in Nature notes that the authors of the report, Jorge Lopez-Camelo and Ieda Maria Orioli, contend that the supposed spread in the Zika virus in the Western Hemisphere “might largely be attributed to the intense search for cases of the birth defect, and misdiagnoses, because of heightened awareness in the wake of the possible link with Zika.”6
They say that from the epidemiological data available, it is impossible to establish the true size of the surge in microcephaly, and whether there is any link with the Zika virus.6
A relatively few women who have given birth to babies with microcephaly have also been shown to have the Zika virus. That is all the evidence the Brazilian Ministry of Health has to demonstrate a causal connection between Zika and microcephaly. That’s all the WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have to work with right now. And yet, governments and international agencies are going to Defcon 1, as if Earth is in eminent danger of being hit by a meteor. Note the headline in U.S. News & World Report, “CDC Goes to Highest Alert Over Zika Outbreak”7 and the opening paragraph of the article…
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday that the agency’s command center is going to its highest level of alert, a measure reflecting growing concern about the prospect of Zika virus gaining a foothold in the mainland U.S.7
Remember, the alert has to do with Zika, but it is based on the assumption that Zika is suddenly behind all those dubious cases of microcephaly. The Zika virus itself has been around for more than half a century, and the CDC has never considered it much of threat until now. According to the CDC, only about one out of every five people infected with the virus becomes ill, and the illness is usually “mild with symptoms lasting for several days to a week.”8 The most common symptoms of the virus are “fever, rash, joint pain, or conjunctivitis (red eyes).”8
What the CDC (and other organizations) really appears to be worried about is the specter of thousands of babies in the United States being born with shrunken heads and severe brain damage. How would it look to have so many pregnant American mothers experience the same kind of fear and uncertainty as that being experienced by their counterparts in Brazil? After all, the U.S. is not a Third World country.
That is why the CDC is in a heightened state of alert, and that’s why the U.S. government has proposed spending $1.8 billion to fight Zika.9 You have to pull out all the stops to prevent such a horrendous epidemic from striking the U.S.
There’s a problem, though. There is already an epidemic of microcephaly in the U.S., and it has been around since long before we ever started hearing about Zika. According to a study published in 2009 in the journal Neurology:
Microcephaly may result from any insult that disturbs early brain growth and can be seen in association with hundreds of genetic syndromes. Annually, approximately 25,000 infants in the United States will be diagnosed with microcephaly (head circumference <-2 SD).10
That is 25,000 per year in a country with a population of just under 323 million.11 Compare that with, at most, 3,500 cases in Brazil—a country of about 209 million people.12 Who has the real crisis on its hands? Then there’s that elephant in the room that must be addressed. Zika is not considered to be endemic to the U.S., but the country has an awful lot of microcephaly. What’s causing it? On the other hand, Colombia has reported that 25,645 people, including 3,177 pregnant women, have been infected with the Zika virus, but there are no reported cases of microcephaly.13 14 Why not?
Could it possibly be that we’ve gotten so worked up about Zika and all those bothersome mosquitoes that we have neglected to look elsewhere for the cause of the microcephaly?
1 World Health Organization (WHO). WHO Director-General summarizes the outcome of the Emergency Committee regarding clusters of microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome. WHO.int Feb. 1, 2016.
2 Correia LFB. Zika and Microcephaly: Report from Brazil. MedPage Today Jan. 17, 2016.
3 Phillips D, Sun LH. Brazil may have fewer Zika-related microcephaly cases than previously reported. The Washington Post Jan. 29, 2016.
4 McNeil DG, Romero S, Tavernise S. How a Medical Mystery in Brazil Led Doctors to Zika. The New York Times Feb. 6, 2016.
5 Lopez-Camelo JS, Orioli IM. ECLAMC Final Document. Nature Dec. 30, 2015.
6 Butler D. Zika virus: Brazil’s surge in small-headed babies questioned by report.Nature Jan. 28, 2016.
7 Sternberg S. CDC Goes to Highest Alert Over Zika Outbreak. U.S. News & World Report Feb. 8, 2016.
8 CDC. Zika Virus: Symptoms, Diagnosis, & Treatment. CDC.gov.
9 Mufson S, Sun LH. CD$1.8 billion to fight Zika: CDC moves to highest alert level. The Washington Post Feb. 8, 2016.
10 Ashwal S, Michelson D, Plawner L, Dobyns WB. Practice Parameter: Evaluation of the child with microcephaly (an evidence-based review). Neurology 2009 Sep. 15; 73(11): 887–897.
11 U.S. Census Bureau. U.S. and World Population Clock. Census.gov.
12 Worldometers. Brazil Population. Worldometers.info.
13 Mezzofiore G. More than 3,000 pregnant women in Colombia have contracted the head-shrinking Zika virus, officials say. Daily Mail Feb. 7, 2016.
14 CH/JR. Colombia: 3,177 Pregnant Women With Zika; No Microcephaly. ABC News (from AP) Feb. 6. 2016.