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Zika virus and microcephaly: The conspiracy theories flow fast and furious

It’s an oft-stated cliche that our children our our future. That’s the reason stories involving dire threats to children are considered so terrifying. It’s why, for instance, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End resonated so creepily. After all, as part of the end of civilization, a frightening change came over the children, who became far superior in abilities and mental power to their parents. Another example includes Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio, whose plot involves the human race being plagued by a new disease called “Herod’s Flu,” which causes pregnant women to spontaneously abort their fetuses, after which they become pregnant again. This heralds a mass evolutionary change in the next generation of children. It’s such a common trope in literature, TV, and film that it even has a name, Bizarre Baby Boom. The flip side of this trope includes stories in which the human race ends because of sterility, as in Children of Men. Stories that speculate bad or bizarre things about the next generation tap into a very deep and primal human fear.

These sorts of stories are just a manifestation of human terror over the thought of something that threatens or changes our children. Perhaps the most famous real-life example of this was the thalidomide disaster, in which as many as 20,000 children were born with birth defects involving stunted limb growth as a result of using thalidomide, which was then prescribed as an antiemetic, during pregnancy. Similarly, another drug, diethylstilbestrol (also called DES), also caused birth defects including reproductive tract conditions. Now, combine fear of infectious disease with our fear and revulsion of something that changes our children, particularly if it causes birth defects.

Perhaps this is why recent stories of the Zika virus have produced such a major reaction, both in the news and in the form of conspiracy theories. Yes, it didn’t take long for the conspiracy loons to latch on to the virus. First, however, let’s look at a more mainstream reaction, which reminds me of the reaction to Ebola over a year ago.

This reaction, one of mostly fear, has been the primary manifestation of greatly increased interest in the virus over the last few weeks, ever since it was linked to serious birth defects in October. That’s when this happened:

At the end of October 2015, the state of Pernambuco in northeast Brazil began reporting a dramatic increase in babies born with microcephaly, followed by the nearby states of Bahía and Paraíba. “Microcephaly is a very rare condition,” says Patricia Pestana Garcez, a neurodevelopment expert who studies the disorder at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. “That was already something bizarre going on.”

Many of the mothers of affected babies reported Zika-like symptoms, including rashes and joint pain, during their pregnancies. So doctors decided to check it out. They found Zika in the amniotic fluid of two fetuses that had been diagnosed with microcephaly in the womb. It’s a small sample size, but it does show that the virus can cross the placenta and get to a developing fetus. On January 13, the Brazilian Ministry of Health announced that it had also found Zika in the tissues of two miscarried fetuses and two newborns who died shortly after birth.

Considerable debate has been going on regarding whether the Zika virus really is causing microcephaly, which consists of an abnormally small head, with incomplete brain development. Skeptics, particularly ones like me and many of my readers, know that correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation. It might, but in medicine much more often it does not. Regular readers of this blog also know that the more a condition is searched for the more it will be found, as milder cases are picked up that might not have been noticed before. Regular readers of this blog are probably familiar with what has sometimes been called the “awareness” effect, which is likely partially responsible for the surge in autism, along with broadening of the diagnostic criteria for autism-spectrum disorders, the surge known among antivaccine activists as the “autism epidemic,” the same “epidemic” they blame on vaccines. Similarly, screening programs always turn up subclinical and mild cases of the condition screened for, leading to an increase in apparent incidence.

Thus it’s not surprising that it’s unclear as of yet whether there is a true correlation between the Zika virus or even whether there is a true surge in cases of microcephaly, as this recent Nature article discusses:

This ‘awareness’ effect is well known and inevitable, they say, and must be revealing cases that would have gone unnoticed under normal circumstances. They also say that a high rate of misdiagnoses among reported cases is likely because the diagnostic criteria being used for microcephaly are broad.

Lopez-Camelo and Orioli presented their analysis in Portuguese-language reports, and, after Nature’s enquiries, provided an English version of the summary (ECLAMC Report).

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. In particular, large ‘prospective’ studies, in which pregnant women in areas of Brazil experiencing Zika outbreaks are monitored to see how many of their children develop microcephaly are needed, they say. Several research groups in and outside Brazil are already planning such studies, and some have begun.

In particular, the investigators, Jorge Lopez-Camelo and Ieda Maria Orioli, from the Latin American Collaborative Study of Congenital Malformations (ECLAMC), point out that the criteria for diagnosing microcephaly are not clear and it is not a trivial problem to estimate the expected number of cases of microcephaly in a population. They note that the Live Birth Information System (SINASC) database records about 1% of birth defects in live births for an expected rate of 3%, which means that an active search for a specific defect could result in an increase of as much as 2/3 in the number of cases usually recorded, even in the absence of an increase in incidence of that particular birth defect. Also, right now Brazilian health authorities are treating all fetuses with head circumferences more than two standard deviations below the mean and newborns with a head circumference of less than 32 cm as suspected cases. These are broad criteria that will inevitably diagnose many children within the normal growth range who don’t have microcephaly. Confirmation of the diagnosis requires not just small head circumference, but small brain size and a decreased rate of brain growth. Consequently, it is quite likely that many of these cases will be reclassified as not having the condition.

Fellow ScienceBlogger Tara Smith points out the same thing, namely that we aren’t sure whether Zika virus is causing an outbreak of microcephaly. Although the circumstantial evidence is very suggestive now, but we don’t know how common microcephaly really is in Brazil or other countries affected by the outbreak, nor will we know for sure until the proper large scale epidemiological studies are done. Certainly there’s enough evidence there to raise justified concerns, but there’s an incredible amount of uncertainty, and humans tend not to deal with uncertainty very well at all. Similarly, Zika virus has been linked to Guillan-Barré syndrome. This connection is less uncertain, but still has a lot of uncertainty surrounding it.

This uncertainty is compounded by the characteristics of the Zika virus. It is, of course, a virus that’s transmitted by mosquitos (A. aegpyti is its primary vector) that’s in the same family of a number of other mosquito-borne viruses, such as dengue, yellow fever, and chikungunya. Sexual transmission of the virus has also been reported, but appears to be, although not impossible, quite rare. Overwhelmingly, the primary means of transmission is by mosquito. Unfortunately, as is the case for many viral illnesses there is no treatment, nor is there a vaccine yet available. Moreover, the incubation period of the virus is not known, and the majority of people infected with Zika virus, as many as 80% of them, don’t know they were infected because in them the infection is asymptomatic. The other 20% who do become sick suffer from fever, rash, joint pain, conjunctivitis, muscle pain, and headache lasting for several days to a week or so. Of course, likely the reason for a lack of urgency to develop a vaccine for Zika virus is because most people who get the virus don’t get sick and the vast majority of those who do suffer a relatively mild viral illness. It wasn’t until this suspected link between this virus infecting pregnant women and the subsequent delivery of babies with microcephaly that there was a groundswell of interest in combatting this virus.

As a result of the strongly suggestive evidence linking Zika virus to microcephaly and Guillan-Barré syndrome, at this time it seems prudent to take measures to try to halt its spread in areas where its mosquito host is endemic, which includes large swaths of South and Central America, as well as the southeastern United States, particularly Florida. There has not yet been any transmission of the Zika virus within the US, and mosquito control in the US is better, with more houses with screens and air conditioning, unlike many of the countries currently affected.

Unfortunately, the news coverage has brought out the conspiracy loons, many of whom are the usual suspects. Oh, boy, has it ever! The stupid doth flow from many of the usual suspects, particularly from the antivaccine crankosphere, where, for example, Marco Cáceres declares that viruses are always the easy scapegoat. He doesn’t say what he thinks the real cause of the apparent increase in incidence of microcephaly in Brazil is, but he lays down the naturalistic fallacy hard and heavy, saying it’s always easy to blame the virus:

The media, along with many within the scientific, medical and public health communities, have irresponsibly pushed the idea that a virus is like a terrorist—something threatening that we must attack and destroy before it attacks and kills us. The same thoroughly unscientific mentality has been disseminated widely with regard to bacteria, disease, and fever.

The truth is that we carry lots of viruses within us all the time, and they don’t harm us in the least bit. And some of them actually do good things for us.

All of which is true but irrelevant to the question of whether the Zika virus is causing microcephaly in South America. Yes, we have a lot of harmless viruses in our cells, but we are also susceptible to lots of viruses that are not benign, viruses that do cause disease, death, and, yes, sometimes birth defects. Cáceres makes it clear where he’s coming from, though, when he quotes a chiropractor who asserts without evidence that, by and large, the “viruses that cause the common cold and the flu infect mainly your weakest cells; cells that are already burdened with excessive waste products and toxins are most likely to allow viruses to infect them.” Um, no. Of course, if you subscribe to the belief that viruses don’t cause disease and it’s all “toxins,” you can sell lots of “detoxification” treatments to treat a viral illness whose natural history is benign in the vast majority of people infected with it.

Which leads us to a new quack-friendly website that I hadn’t really paid much attention to before, TruthKings. Here’s a hint. Whenever a website is called something like TruthKings, you can be pretty sure that it is not dedicated to science or science-based medicine. Sadly, this site doesn’t disappoint, asking: Is Tdap vaccine in pregnant women the real cause of birth defects? If you really want a laugh, you should go to the source, Brazilian Shrunken Head Babies, where the arguments are lame even by antivaccine loon standards. It’s basically pure speculation “bolstered” with several paragraphs beginning with the word “FACT” in—what else?—all caps. Here’s a taste:

FACT—According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) adequate testing has not been done in humans to demonstrate safety for pregnant women and it is not known whether the vaccines can cause fetal harm or affect reproduction capacity. The manufacturers of the Tdap vaccine state that human toxicity and fertility studies are inadequate and warn that Tdap should “be given to a pregnant woman only if clearly needed.”

Ah, yes. The antivaccine fallacy known as argumentum ad package insert. Of course, Tdap isn’t recommended until late in pregnancy, too late to be likely to cause birth defects as severe as microcephaly. Moreover, Tdap is quite safe during pregnancy. Let’s just say that the rest of the screamed “FACTs” consist of little more than speculation, appeals to ignorance, and confusing correlation with causation.

Perhaps my favorite conspiracy theory involves something that you really must have expected. What are we lacking so far in these conspiracy theories? Come on! Think! What causes all evils. GMOs, of course! And the CDC and WHO are happy about it, of course! Take a look at another conspiracy yarn from TruthKings, which bases its GMO mosquito speculation on a “report” from Honey Colony:

Is it just a coincidence that the recent outbreak of infections is concentrated in the same region where a genetically modified mosquito farm was first introduced in 2011 and 2012? ( You may rethink that trip to attend the summer Olympics in Brazil.)

In July 2015, following the release of OX513A strain of male mosquitoes into the wild in Juazeiro, Bahia, Northeast Brazil, biotech company Oxitec proudly announced they had “successfully controlled the Aedes Aegypti mosquito – that spreads dengue fever, chikungunya and Zika virus – by reducing the target population by more than 90 percent.”

Not surprisingly, Mike Adams at has jumped on this particularly bandwagon, because, of course, it’s anti-GMO, and he can’t resist taking it a step farther:

The Zika virus, in other words, might not even be an accident. If you give these scientists the most optimistic credit possible, you might say they intended for a positive outcome but didn’t realize the risks of what they were doing. But a more pessimistic analysis of their actions might reasonably conclude that they’re testing a bioweapon delivery system against humanity.

Only time will tell which interpretation is correct. Whatever the outcome, make no mistake that today’s biotech science is incredibly foolish, and the actions of these biotech corporations are putting the very future of humanity at extreme risk. Now, it seems, humanity is beginning to witness the true cost of arrogantly playing God with nature.

Of course, no conspiracy theory about “depopulation” would be complete without bringing Bill Gates into the mix, which Alex Jones promptly does. Seriously, this is some super high grade conspiracy nonsense:

The video is deliciously nuts. Jones’ minions can’t seem to make up their mind whether Zika virus is a radical plot by Bill Gates and company to depopulate the world or whether, as John Rapport says in the video, a scam, with the Zika virus not being real. In the conspiracy theorist’s mindset, I suppose it can be both.

Why is it that in these scenarios GMO scientists are portrayed in as caricatured a fashion as an evil overlord, a James Bond movie villain, only not as clever? If I were an evil overlord or a Bond villain intent on asserting my power and I wanted to use some sort of bioweapon, a genetically engineered mosquito would be one of the last things I’d choose, if only because you can’t control where they end up. Ditto a “bioweapon” in the form of a disease like that caused by Zika virus. Again, you can’t control it, and, besides, what’s the good of a bioweapon if all it does is to cause birth defects, particularly if it can’t be easily proven that the virus is the cause? What purpose would such a “bioweapon” serve? How could a dedicated supervillain use it to achieve more power?

Even the worst Bond villains were cleverer and less unfocused than this.

Expanding on the video above, though, perhaps my favorite conspiracy theory comes from—who else?—John Rappaport, who calls the CDC the “medical CIA.” Why? Let Rappaport tell you about the CDC’s pidemic Intelligence Service (EIS), who, according to him, “creates disinformation on a scale that must make the CIA jealous” and “invent medical reality out of thin air.” To what end? Well, that’s never made very clear, but Rappaport sure is suspicious. Through their “several hundred investigations a year” around the world, the EIS is spreading disinformation:

When I say control of information, I mean disinformation. That’s what the EIS is for. They’ve never met a virus they didn’t love, and if they couldn’t find one, they pretended they did.

They front for the medical cartel. And they provide cover for the crimes of mega-corporations. There’s a town where poverty-stricken people are dying, because horrendous pesticides are running into the water supply and soil? No, it’s a virus. There’s a hotel where the plumbing is broken and human waste is getting into all the bathrooms, and they want this hotel to be the epicenter of a new epidemic? No, it isn’t the plumbing, it’s a novel virus never seen before by man. There’s a section of a city where the industrial pollution is driving people over the edge into immune-system failure? No, it’s a virus.

And in Brazil:

The Brazil op has several dimensions. I’ll point out one here. The Zika virus, as in other cases, will be strongly linked to global warming (yet another example of bereft “science”). This tune will be sung: mosquitoes that carry disease are expanding their territory because of warming, and therefore people who once considered themselves safe from these “exotic” viruses will fall ill and die. Bottom line: to limit warming, the planet must adopt cap and trade, carbon taxes (and lower energy production). This is the Globalist agenda. It is intended to drive countries deeper into misery, debt, and chaos—thus making it easier to install a wider and wider global management system.

And this line of psy-op and propaganda begins with the virus hunters of the EIS. They control and own the chokepoint of disease research. They blow up their scanty findings into ex-cathedra pronouncements.

And of course, this strengthens the vaccine establishment because, for every virus, there must be a vaccine: the shot in the arm, loaded with toxic chemicals and a variety of germs.

The EIS. The CDC’s band of brothers. The medical CIA.

Bravo, Mr. Rappaport! You’ve come up with the most elaborate Zika virus conspiracy theory I’ve come across thus far! Truly impressive. While mere amateurs like Mike Adams just think that our New World Order masters are testing bioweapons through genetically modified mosquitos, only Rappaport appreciates the full scope of the conspiracy, tying together anthropogenic global climate change, viruses like the Zika virus, and vaccines as part of a nefarious plan to inject babies with “toxic chemicals” and keep you and me under the thumb of big pharma.

Now that’s a conspiracy theory. All it lacks are our Reptilian overlords. I expect they’ll be along soon enough, as will the Zika virus quackery; that is, if it isn’t along already. (Oh, crap. The homeopaths have discovered Zika virus.) That might be a topic for another post.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]


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