Yesterday, the World Health Organization ("WHO") declared the Zika virus an international public health emergency... its highest level of alert.
It has taken this action only three times prior... for H1N1 swine flu in 2009, a polio scare in Pakistan and Syria in 2014, and the August 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa.
But once again, another large, boggy institution has failed us.
Remember what happened during the swine flu "epidemic" in 2009...
Major headlines and frightening pictures wanted you to think the world was ending. Talking heads on TV gave their "expert" opinions. Even the Vice President of the United States was spouting nonsense on the Today show, telling the audience to stay out of airplanes and subways. And the WHO acted as though we faced some grave new threat.
Today, folks are trying to do the same. But don't fall for it. Let's stick to the facts...
Zika virus is simply not even on the radar as a threat to your health...
First, current statistics indicate only about one in five folks infected with Zika virus even get sick.
And for those, the illness is usually mild. You may not even realize you're infected – the most common symptoms are fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes. Symptoms typically begin two to seven days after an infected mosquito bites you.
But that requires a mosquito that's infected to find you.
The mosquito that transmits Zika virus – a species known as Aedes aegypti, or "yellow fever mosquito" – is rare in the U.S. Check out this map...
Here's the truth of the matter: No Aedes mosquito, no infection. In fact, the Aedes is better known for transmitting yellow fever.
Any sky-is-falling headline that you see is just a scare tactic.
Of course, it's possible that a few cases of Zika virus will pop up here and there in the U.S. But remember that the mosquito also carries dengue fever, a much more common tropical virus that is rarely seen in the U.S... Again, that's because the mosquito isn't here.
Sadly, the only reason you should be concerned about Zika is if you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant – the virus is weakly associated with cases of brain defects in newborn babies.
So if you are pregnant, I don't recommend traveling to Mexico and South America. (Here's a map from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ("CDC") of where the Zika virus has been reported so far.)
Keep in mind that it's unlikely the Zika virus stays in a woman's bloodstream for longer than a few weeks... Once it's gone, there should be no harm to future pregnancies.
And if you're not pregnant or trying to become pregnant – which is at least 95% of us – don't cancel your travel plans.
Do what I do: If you're going to the Caribbean, Mexico, or South America, it's never a bad idea to take a few extra precautions against mosquitoes... They carry plenty of other, more harmful diseases than Zika.
Wear long-sleeve shirts and long pants, sleep under a mosquito net if you're in a screenless room, and apply insect repellant. And make sure to read the ingredients of your bug spray...
The main ingredient of many mosquito repellants, diethyltoluamide (DEET), has resulted in serious cases of toxicity, nerve damage, and brain swelling. More common are skin rashes, headaches, or numbness. (Yes, some of the same symptoms of the viruses you're trying to keep away.)
So try using a combination of essential oils and lower concentrations of DEET repellent to keep the bugs away...
An Australian study compared a 40% DEET spray with a 32% concentration of lemon eucalyptus oil. Both had a greater than 95% success of keeping mosquitoes away. DEET lasted twice as long as the oil, but the fact that an essential oil did so well in the trial seems promising.
I use a brand called Repel, which makes a DEET-free lemon eucalyptus spray, as well as a 15% DEET spray (its "scented Family formula"). I'll first use the DEET-free spray, and then add DEET if the bugs seem particularly ferocious.
Also, if you live in an area with mosquitoes and have an outside space you enjoy, try planting natural repellents like geraniums, mints (of all kinds), lavender, and pennyroyal. These plants keep away all sorts of annoying insects.
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Doc's Hatred of Mosquito-Borne Illnesses
A million people a year die from mosquitos – a child every 30 seconds. The malaria disease is responsible for a majority of the problem. But it doesn't have to be...
Many people don't know that malaria was once a deadly killer in the U.S., but a chemical called DDT eliminated it from our country's lands. I grew up playing outside while DDT-fogger trucks drove by on our street.
Sadly, do-gooders and snake oil scientists made outrageous claims... like that whole species of birds – bald eagles, pelicans, and hawks of all kinds – would get wiped out because of the chemical.
And elected officials eventually banned DDT and demanded the rest of the world ban it too. Sadly, the science is shoddy and the world's children keep dying.
But here are the facts…
In the 1970s, DDT was blamed for declining bird populations due to thinning eggshells. But a study published in 2013 in the Journal of Toxicology Science found "no compelling evidence that DDT directly affects avian reproductive systems."
A 2009 analysis of 494 studies found that the research purporting the dangers of DDT were inconsistent and inconclusive. For example, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) labeled DDT as a possible carcinogen. But the 2009 analysis found that, "most human studies reviewed by IARC in 1991 did not show an association between DDT exposure and cancer risk."
Facts and politics don't mix. It's why I dislike government and institutions. They never admit when they're wrong.
My heart goes out to any mother or child whose lives are hurt by mosquitos.
What We're Reading...
- The secret lives of groundhogs...
- As a potential pandemic, the H1N1 flu virus was a bust.
- Something different: How the classic American pogo stick turned into an extreme sport.
Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Retirement Millionaire Daily Research Team
February 2, 2016