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Coverage of Zika Virus is Reminiscent of Another Stigmatized Disease

Coverage of Zika Virus is Reminiscent of Another Stigmatized Disease

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Zika has parallels with the debut of polio a hundred years ago.

As pointed out by The New York Times, there hasn't been a virus tinged with as much ethnic bias as Zika since the first polio outbreak a hundred years ago. With new evidence adding up that the Zika virus may be here to stay, that’s a potentially dangerous correlation — after all, the more we believe a disease only impacts other people, the less we do to protect ourselves.

The Times recently pointed out the parallels to the first polio outbreaks. Much like today’s reporting that suggests every Brazilian and Dominican immigrant or traveler might be carriers, polio it was said, was carried by “Poles and Italians.” The Times notes: “In the 1840s, the Irish were blamed for cholera, and in the 1890s, the Jews for tuberculosis. The first child to be paralyzed lived in a modest Italian neighborhood east of the Gowanus in Brooklyn. Polio soon jumped to Pigtown, a gritty pig-farming area, and most of the first 20 cases were in Italian children.”

When it first appeared, Zika seemed media packaged with the Olympics; and like them, guaranteed to end by the time summer was over. The virus, which early accounts suggested was solely the provenance of South and Central America (an assumption more than slightly tinged with xenophobia), has proven to be longer lasting and more lethal than when it made its debut. It now seems poised to come with us back to school. This is not good news.

The recent outbreak in Miami proves Zika is viable in North America. Even more frightening is evidence that suggests that Zika is not only a threat to developing fetuses, as originally thought, but may also cause brain damage in full grown adults. It gets worse: Zika is the only mosquito-borne disease to also be sexually transmitted, even from partners who aren’t symptomatic.

All communicable diseases seem to spawn their own stigma, but many of the early theories of Zika’s Latino origins will fade. There are signs of hope that the viral threat may do so as well. The Washington Post recently revealed that three existing drugs, currently used to combat hepatitis C and cancer, may kill Zika. But, so far, that treatment has yet to be tested on humans.

When faced with new infectious diseases, the correct response should be vigilance and scientific investigation, not hysteria and a sudden suspicion of those with particular ethnic backgrounds. If the fight against HIV has shown one thing, it’s that clear heads — and not ignorance — is the first response needed in the battle against new diseases.

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Savas Abadsidis