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Why Aren’t Americans Flipping Out About Zika? Because They Already Did Over Ebola

Keep calm, carry on, and don’t listen to your local broadcaster.

By Jared Keller


A specialist fumigates the Nueva Esperanza graveyard in the outskirts of Lima, Peru, in an attempt to prevent Zika contamination. (Photo: Ernesto Benavides/AFP/Getty Images)

“If you’re pregnant or planning on getting pregnant, don’t go south.”

That’s the eerie warning delivered by Dr. Jay Varma, New York City’s deputy commissioner for disease control, about Zika, the little-understood virus that has swept through the Americas and Pacific since mid-2015. Speaking among a panel of medical experts at the American Museum of Natural History on a warm evening in June, Varma didn’t mince words in conveying risks surrounding the epidemic to the hundreds of assembled guests. “The risk is real, and the consequences of exposure and infection are severe,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily hurt those who get infected, but it hurts how we reproduce, and that’s bad news for the species.”

Varma’s not entirely wrong. While the World Health Organization describes the Zika as harmless for “the vast majority” of people (apart from flu-like symptoms and the extremely rare onset of temporary paralysis), the virus, transmitted by mosquito bite or sexual activity, is incredibly dangerous for women of childbearing age. Zika can have terrifying effects on the development of brains of newborn children, resulting in microcephaly, neurodevelopmental and motor deformities, and a higher susceptibility to congenital defects like blindness and schizophrenia, according to Dr. Catherine Spong of the National Institutes of Health; even worse, it’s extremely difficult to diagnose. It’s this connection that led the World Health Organization to declare Zika a public-health emergency in February, warning that the virus could infect four million people by the end of 2016.

Despite the fact that researchers have been collecting data on the virus since it was first isolated in 1947, Zika is still frustratingly hard to identify and treat. Sprong points out that some 80 percent of women who contract the virus are asymptomatic, and while a relatively small portion (29 percent, according to studies) of women who do display symptoms endure complications with their fetus, those who contract the virus as late as the third trimester are still at risk. And, according to Columbia University epidemiologist W. Ian Lipkin, standard diagnostic tools focused on antibodies (as opposed to genetic testing) have trouble distinguishing between Zika and it’s subtropical cousin, dengue fever. “The greatest risk,” Lipkin says, “is in women who don’t recall any symptoms at all.”

Zika panic may not be as common as we think.

The uncertainty surrounding the virus, despite its relatively low risks, has only flamed anxieties surrounding the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio De Janeiro—which is itself the heart of Brazil’s Zika outbreak — and, in turn, inspired the sort of breathless media coverage not unlike what followed the 2014 Ebola outbreak. According to a March analysis by MediaQuant, coverage of the virus has risen some 52 percent in the last year to a “new rating high” of 96, a metric that captured some 17.7 million media mentions across global news channels in February alone.

And despite reassurances from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization that the risk of contracting the virus is relatively low, it is, of course, stories of the virus’ damaging effects that have dominated the news cycle: Rio’s lack of facilities; panicked Zika prevention measures among Olympic athletes; and vivid news of New York City’s first “Zika baby” with virus-related microcephaly. “Zika’s lack of ‘containment’ drives media coverage,” Senatori writes. “In some ways it’s more about the size of the threat than the risk of the threat that piques media interest.”

And what’s the result of this uptick in broadcast hand-wringing? Nothing good for the public, according to recent data. While an Annenberg Science Knowledge survey revealed that half of Americans worry that Zika will spread from countries like Brazil to their own neighborhoods, a poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that six in 10 Americans claim they “have heard only a little or nothing at all about the Zika virus.”

This lack of knowledge is especially pronounced among families planning on getting pregnant, according to a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health poll: Twenty-three percent “are not aware of the association between Zika virus and the birth defect microcephaly,” while 42 percent don’t even realize Zika can be sexually transmitted. And don’t forget the one-third of Americans who are convinced that genetically modified mosquitoes are responsible for the spread of the virus. The lack of clear, accurate information propagated by news outlets has given rise to a vacuum ripe for pseudoscience about Zika to flourish to the danger of the general public, according to a study in Vaccine.

Despite all this, Zika panic may not be as common as we think. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, just 13 percent of Americans see Zika “as a major threat to them personally,” while a majority (63 percent) believe the virus “will be contained to a small number of cases.” Even more curiously, Americans are less concerned about Zika than Ebola, despite the higher risk of infections associated with the former.

Americans are sure they’ll face Zika at home soon, but they know nothing about the virus — and are totally fine with it. Apparently ignorance truly is bliss.

So why aren’t Americans freaking out over Zika? One answer is a question of politics. Ebola’s particularly horrifying symptoms and its position in American pop culture (thanks, Dustin Hoffman) made it fertile ground for political exploitation in the run-up to the 2014 mid-term elections. As Charles L. Briggs and Daniel C. Hallin write in their book, Making Health Public, “Republican politicians and pundits integrated Ebola into a campaign narrative about the failure of the Obama administration to protect the United States from external threats.”

With the presidential election on the horizon, Ebola coverage exploded, and state and federal officials started carving out policy proposals and calling for border closings. And let’s not forget the “othering” of African immigrants, as Briggs and Hallin note: Early media coverage of the Ebola epidemic “was highly evocative of racialized contagion-mutation frames.” To wit: Ebola coverage on cable news “plummeted” after the mid-term elections, according to Media Matters for America.

Could the U.S.’s muted Zika anxiety be a direct response to our Ebola overreaction two years ago? While there’s no polling data indicating whether or not Americans explicitly blame the media and politicians for fanning the flames of Ebola paranoia for short-term political (and ratings) gain, it makes logical sense that crying wolf over Ebola may have hurt the media’s capacity to convey crucial information about Zika this time around.

After all, trust in the media is dismal: A poll by the American Press Institute and the AP-NORC center found that just 6 percent of Americans have “a lot of confidence” in media organizations, confirming Gallup’s long-running assertion that trust in American mass media remains at a historic low. The same applies to lawmakers in Congress, the lowest of the low in Gallup’s measure of trust in U.S. institutions after big business and, you guessed it, newspapers and television news.

That’s the irony of this year’s Zika non-panic: Americans’ distrust in mass media, despite the resulting lack of knowledge about the virus, has also inoculated the general populace against an all-encompassing freakout, giving organizations like the WHO and CDC and officials like Varma the headspace to actually deliver clear (if somewhat concerning) information on the risks of Zika to the average citizen.

Sure, the AP-NORC polling data indicates that a majority of Americans (84 percent) who are actually aware of the Zika epidemic are getting their information from TV and the radio, but a growing portion are turning directly to the websites of health organizations (15 percent) and the CDC itself (13 percent). And those Americans with high levels of Zika knowledge “are more likely than those less informed to get their information from the CDC (20 percent vs. 7 percent).”

Perhaps by tuning out their local broadcasters, Americans are tuning in to the reality of Zika: There are still a lot of unknowns.