Sunday, September 11, 2016

Zika Part 2
Humans are Just Food Trucks for the Andes Aegypti Mosquito


Please stick with me readers. I know these Zika posts are a deep, wonky dive, but this faux crisis is just so emblematic of the problems of the politicizing and profiteering that corrupts many (most?) of our environmental and public heath issues that I just can't give this a quick pass over. It also concerns me deeply that I've found so much disinformation and bad analysis at each and every layer of this story. And I just can't get out of my mind the untold number of pregnant women who are needlessly having the bejesus scared out of them. 

Let’s quickly recap my last post: We should all be afraid, very, very afraid. The Zika virus is ravaging the Americas and leaving in its wake thousands of babies with profound birth defects – or maybe only hundreds – oh, wait, how are we defining microcephaly? Oh, never you mind! Despite being absolutely clueless for decades about what is causing autism and our current epidemic of allergies, asthma and a host of autoimmune diseases, after mere weeks the CDC is absolutely sure Zika causes microcephaly and other yet to be documented birth defects and needs our $$$$s STAT! In the meantime, we’re in an all-out war with the mosquito.

The headline in the Washington Post said it all - ‘Like it’s been nuked’: Millions of bees dead after South Carolina sprays for Zika mosquitoes. This was horrible news, even more so because of the poor health of bees and other pollinators in America due to the not yet well understood phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that pollinator bees in America are worth $15 Billion dollars in crop production annually. Carelessly killing several million bees, as well as an unknown number of other pollinators such as wild bees, butterflies and moths, in addition to being tragic, is also a very expensive mistake. Moreover, the pesticide used in South Carolina, Naled, has actually been banned in many other countries because of its toxicity to humans -especially developing fetuses - and other living things.

However, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institutes for Health (NIH) the stakes are high enough to warrant out-right panic over the Zika virus – and therefore, by extension, any reckless decision-making that comes along with it. The day before the article reporting the bee deaths, the Washington Post prominently featured an Op-Ed by our friends Tony Fauci of NIH and Tom Frieden, head of the CDC hyping the Zika Virus’ “unprecedented threat to the people of our nation, especially pregnant women” and decrying the lack of funding provided by Congress. How panicky should we be? These fine gentlemen are threatening to take some of the money previously destined for cancer research, HIV/AIDS programs, heart disease (the number one killer in America) and the CDC’s own sacred cow, the childhood vaccination program and re-direct those dollars toward fighting Zika.

This huge, unprecedented reprogramming of funds – and willingness to undertake poorly-planned aerial spraying with a pesticide with known toxicity – implies that a whole host of data is available about Zika, the disease’s transmission, mosquitoes, pesticides et al, and that the data is clear, unimpeachable and supports, in the strongest possible way, a myriad of decisions being made at the Federal, State and Local levels. Decisions which have serious and profound, personal, economic, environmental and public health impacts.

Undertaking aerial spraying implies many things, for example: that aerial spraying is the best way to fight the mosquitoes capable of spreading Zika; that those mosquitoes are actively spreading the disease; that there are many, many cases of Zika that we know are being spread by local mosquitoes; and that in the past we have seen similar mosquito-borne diseases spread quickly and dangerously through the population once they hit the mainland US.

Further, the emergency reprogramming of funds within the top public health organization in the US leads one to believe that the tests being used to confirm that these are really cases of Zika are reliable and widely available; the freak-out about this birth defect/Zika connection is warranted because we have irrefutable evidence of such; these birth defects are so devastating, and happen with such frequency that it warrants taking dollars from HIV/AIDs, heart disease and cancer programs and research; and finally, that researchers have successfully developed safe and effective vaccines for similar diseases.

Well, ummm, no, not really - on any of the above counts.

As I like to say – let’s unpack a few of these assumptions…..

Aerial spraying is an effective way to combat the mosquitoes thought to be spreading the Zika virus:

The Zika virus is being spread here in the U.S., Puerto Rico and elsewhere in Central and South America by the Ades Aegypti mosquito. As so elegantly put by an infectious disease and mosquito expert on the Diane Rehm show on August 3rd, the Ades Aegypti is “the Norway Rat” of mosquitoes (listen at 46:15). What exactly did Dr. Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease, Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, mean by that? Simply put – we are these mosquitoes’ food trucks – they want to be where we are. That means in urban areas, near the ground. According to Dr. Osterholm, studies have found one of the places they love to hang out is in our closets (46:44). They are hanging out near our birdbaths and the kiddie toys in our backyards (46:35) – not near a semi-rural bee farm in South Carolina. So, absolutely “no” to the effectiveness on that aerial spraying (46:50)

But surely, spraying is effective in certain conditions? Like in the urban areas mentioned above? Well, no, not really according to Dr. Osterholm and Phil Goodman (another panelist on the same show who has spent decades fighting disease spreading mosquitoes in the Florida Keys) (31:50) As they said, the mosquitoes stay close to the ground. The spray falls on any number of things – including us, bees, butterflies, moths and our back yard gardens – before it would ever get to the mosquitoes. Not to mention that the life span of an infected mosquito is 8 to 10 days – that means every time you turn around there’s a new crop of mosquitoes in your back yard or closet. Getting on top of each generation of mosquitoes would require almost constantly bathing neighborhoods in pesticides that have proven neurotoxic effects on developing fetuses. (Remind me again, who are we supposedly protecting with all this spraying? Developing fetuses?)

In addition, one of the reasons Mr. Goodman of the Florida Keys is helping Miami-Dade County with mosquito control is because Miami-Dade doesn’t have much of a mosquito control program. Why? Because they don’t have much of a mosquito problem. Ocean breezes and winds pretty much keep them at bay (14:08).

On top of that, it turns out most of these mosquitoes have become rather immune to the stuff. Remember DDT? That wonder pesticide which was once deemed so safe, we were encouraged to cover our baby’s nursery with wall paper embedded with the stuff? Moms were encouraged to wipe down lunch boxes with it and children were actually SPRAYED with the stuff while eating lunch or swimming in the pool – really – watch this short, mind-blowing video. Well, DDT – which as we know has been deemed to very much NOT be safe - is a close cousin to the pesticides being used today on Andes Aegypti (yet we’re supposed to believe this new version of this pesticide is perfectly safe). It turns out all our spraying of DDT and related pesticides over the decades has led to current generations of mosquitoes who are pretty resistant – (13:13 and 33:50). In fact, by Dr. Osterholm’s assessment, the spraying does little whatsoever to control mosquitoes and is used mostly by municipalities to “look like they’re doing something.”(46:54) I’m SURE the bees and beekeepers appreciate that.....

So, does that mean GMO mosquitoes are the answer? Setting aside all questions about the pros and cons of releasing heretofore not well studied genetically modified organisms into our ecosystem and just looking at the effectiveness of such mosquitoes, if indeed, they could interrupt the Andes aegypti life cycle, Dr. Osterholm says “no” to that as well (41:20). The Andes Aegypti mosquitoes never venture more than 300 – 400 yards from where they hatched (41:24). Add that to their 8 to 10 day life span and you would, according to Dr. Osterholm, have to release GMO mosquitoes in a “carpet-like fashion” every 300 – 400 yards at least every two weeks to have any impact on the problem over many, many square miles. It is not, he says, “a high utility tool that would wipe out these mosquitoes.”(41:55)

Mosquitoes are actively spreading many cases of Zika on the US Mainland:

To keep everyone in panic mode, and Zika hysteria prominently featured in the press, the CDC and the NIH like to throw around big Zika infection numbers. But we have to ask ourselves: Are we hearing the relevant numbers in all those news reports? Probably not. When you hear a spokesman for either organization talking numbers, they are likely confounding many categories to make the number sound big. On any of the audio recordings or articles I link to on the post (including this one) Tom Friedan or Tony Fauci say we are closing in on 20,000 Zika infections in the US. Clearly, that is meant to scare you. What they don’t tell you – or at least don’t tell you right away - is that there are more than 14,000 cases in Puerto Rico, but just over 2,000 in the lower 48 (which is not to say that Puerto Rico isn't important, it just raises the question of why are we gearing up for a mainland assault on mosquitoes when the real problem is elsewhere?). What they almost always leave out is that the vast majority of those cases on the mainland are travel related – people have traveled to countries where Zika is actively being transmitted by mosquitoes and have come home infected. How many of the Zika cases on the mainland have been acquired by local mosquitoes? Well as I write this, forty-three  – yes, that’s right only 43 cases – all in Florida. What? How about the cases in South Carolina, where they felt they had no choice but to aerial spray and killed all the pollinators, surely they had many locally transmitted cases, yes? No. No, in South Carolina there are ZERO - yes, 0 documented cases of actively transmitted Zika infections. South Carolina has only had 43 cases of TRAVEL RELATED Zika – total – since April – but no locally transmitted cases at all……

We have every reason to believe Zika will spread rapidly throughout the US:

This one is really forehead slapping worthy. On August 26th Tom Frieden of the CDC did a Facebook Live interview with NY Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise, to really push two messages – first, Congress is being derelict in its duty – the CDC needs money NOW for vaccines, better testing and tons of research and secondly, we all should be very, very afraid as Zika related birth defects are certain to explode here in the US at any moment. He and the reporter start the interview dutifully sticking to the agreed upon message – money and panic, money and panic, money, vaccines and panic.

But then a funny thing happens. On a Facebook Live event the reporter isn’t the only one who gets to ask questions – the fine folks listening in on Facebook get to ask some questions too….. First, at -10:53 Frieden gets asked – why isn’t Zika exploding in the US? Oh, but it is, he says – in Puerto Rico! We should expect it to explode in Florida too he insists. Then someone asks – “Isn’t Zika very similar to dengue fever in many ways?” Aren’t they are similar in symptoms, mode of transmission and geographical pattern of outbreak? Well, yes. Next question. But wait, we’ve never really had a serious outbreak of dengue in the Continental US – why? Ummmm…. Frieden then has to admit that dengue hasn’t spread in the US in the past because we don’t really have all the conditions necessary here to facilitate such a widespread outbreak of dengue (-10:12)

WHAT?!? Well, it turns out that in Central and South America, the Caribbean and other areas where mosquito borne diseases such as dengue, chikungunya and Zika spread widely, it is in part because those areas have conditions conducive to said spreading. In these areas, the population density is much higher than in the US, there is very little air conditioning so everyone’s windows are open and few people even have screens on said windows allowing mosquitoes easy access to the human “food trucks.” These conditions, Frieden has to admit, don’t really exist in the US. Still, he tries to fan the flames of fear, pointing to a round of dengue infections in the Florida Keys a few years back that stuck around for a year before dying out and once again turning our attention to Puerto Rico. But a questioner brings up dengue again, towards the end of the Facebook session. In response, Frieden admits yes, “9 times out of 10” dengue has died out after a few clustered cases in the US (-3:27). But never mind that – what we really need to do is worry about that 1 time out of 10 when it doesn’t! It could happen with Zika! Yes, he says, usually you get a couple of dengue cases in a household or a workplace and it “hits a dead end”, but that time in the Florida Keys (and a little in Miami) – they saw 40 to 50 locally acquired cases of dengue over a year-long period! (In a population of over 2 million people…..-3:06) How far up the East Coast has dengue ventured in the past? (It has only been seen in Texas and Florida -2:15).

So, someone asks, the real issue is people coming home with infections from other countries? Well, yes. And the best way to avoid spreading the disease under those circumstances? Practice safe sex and wear bug spray for 3 weeks after you return so the local mosquitoes don’t pick up your infection – Wait, what? I’ve never heard that advice before - that sounds like a simple, inexpensive and effective way to fight Zika in the US (-2:00). Shouldn’t we be telling everyone coming home from a trip in an area with active Zika infections use bug spray? ….oops, never mind, can’t dwell on that. Time.Is.Up!  Tom Frieden’s World Fear-mongering Tour must move on.


To be continued…..where I will unpack some of the issues regarding the reliability and accuracy of the tests for Zika, the real likelihood of the development of a safe and effective vaccine and the strength of the “proof” that Zika causes birth defects. In the meantime, if you enjoyed watching Zika 101, here's Zika 201.

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