Many Americans are woefully misinformed when it comes to understanding the risks of Zika virus, a Harvard poll has found, and a Driscoll Children’s Hospital physician wants South Texas to remain alert to the possible dangers of the virus.
A lot of U.S. residents aren’t armed with accurate information about Zika, said Gillian SteelFisher, Deputy Director of the Harvard Opinion Research Program at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.
The results of the poll show that people often don’t know how Zika spreads, or the effects it can have on human health, SteelFisher said.
“There are some important misconceptions about Zika virus,” SteelFisher said. “Some of those could prevent people at risk from taking steps to protect their pregnancies. And, then there’s the reverse problem, which is there are some misconceptions that could cause people to take unnecessary or inappropriate precautions.”
“We are trying to create awareness,” said Jaime Fergie, MD, Director of Infectious Diseases at Driscoll Children’s Hospital and Professor of Pediatrics at Texas A&M University. “Right now we are OK in South Texas,” but that doesn’t mean residents should have a false sense of complacency about the Zika virus.
“Although no cases of locally acquired Zika virus infection have been reported in Texas, we need to remain vigilant because the mosquito that transmits the virus is present in our area,” he said.
“Our main concern is the potential this virus has for causing a severe birth defect known as microcephaly, in which babies are born with an abnormally small head,” Dr. Fergie said.
“The only thing we can do right now is to be aware of the areas where transmission is occurring. The Health Department is monitoring mosquito population in the area to detect the arrival of the virus.”
As of late August, 11,528 Americans have been diagnosed with Zika, including 2,517 in the continental U.S. and 9,011 in U.S. territories, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most Zika cases in the continental U.S. are related to travel or sex with someone who has traveled.
“Mosquito control and use of insect repellent are our main control measures until a vaccine is available,” Dr. Fergie said.
“Pregnant women, and women who want to become pregnant in the near term, should avoid travel to areas of the world where Zika virus transmission is occurring,” Dr. Fergie said.
Accurate information on Zika is vitally important to people in households where someone is pregnant or considering getting pregnant, SteelFisher said.
However, when SteelFisher and her colleagues surveyed people, including those in such households, they found that about 20 percent of Americans weren’t aware that Zika virus can be transmitted from mother to baby during pregnancy.
The researchers also found that:
- About one in four isn’t aware of the association between Zika virus and the birth defect microcephaly.
- One in five believes, incorrectly, that there is a vaccine to protect against Zika.
- Approximately four in 10 do not realize the virus can be sexually transmitted.
- A quarter think individuals infected with Zika are “very likely” to show symptoms.
There is no vaccine or antiviral treatment for Zika.. And, reports have shown that Zika can be spread from a man to a woman via sex, according to the CDC.
Most people with Zika don’t show any symptoms. Those who do have symptoms tend to have mild ones – fever, rash, joint pain, red eyes, muscle pain or headache, according to the CDC.
The misinformation that people showed in the poll means they may not take proper steps to avoid mosquito bites or mosquito-proof their property, SteelFisher said.
“Microcephaly is a major birth defect, and you want people who are pregnant or are considering it to have that information so they’ll be motivated to protect themselves,” SteelFisher said.
On the other hand, inaccurate perceptions can lead some people to become needlessly fearful of Zika.
Nine out of 10 people accurately understand that Zika mainly spreads through mosquito bites, SteelFisher said.
But nearly a third of those surveyed also believe incorrectly that they can contract Zika from someone else’s cough or sneeze, the researchers found.
“That’s the way a lot of viruses are transmitted, but just not Zika virus,” SteelFisher said. “They think it’s like the flu or like a cold. That’s not how it’s passed.” Zika is passed through mosquito bites, sexual transmission or blood transfusion
There’s also unnecessary concern that a Zika infection now will harm future pregnancies, the researchers said.
About four in 10 people surveyed mistakenly believe Zika will cause birth defects even after a woman has gotten over the virus, SteelFisher said.
“There’s no evidence that once an infection is over, Zika virus could affect a future pregnancy,” she said. “If the virus is cleared from your blood, there’s no risk to a future pregnancy. That’s where the evidence stands today.”
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a Senior Associate at the UPMC Center for Health Security in Baltimore, said these sort of misconceptions are common.
“Correcting mistaken conceptions of disease in the public is difficult in the best of times, but extremely daunting in the midst of an outbreak situation in which there is a large amount of sensationalistic media coverage,” Adalja said. “Public health officials must continuously repeat to the public what is definitely known about Zika, what isn’t known, and what questions about it need more research to answer.”
The Harvard poll involved 1,275 adults, including 105 who live in households where someone is pregnant or considering getting pregnant in the next 12 months.
For more on Zika virus, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.