Faculty address Zika virus in research and town hall talk


Aleäa Reyes

Vesta Silva, department chair and associate professor of communication arts, helped lead a talk hosted by the Center for Political Participation on the Zika virus on Wednesday, March 2, 2016.

“On Feb. 1, the Zika virus was declared a global health emergency,” said Assistant Professor of Biology Becky Dawson, to open the Quigley Town Hall talk on Wednesday, March 2.

The Center for Political Participation organized the talk and Department Chair and Associate Professor of Communication Arts Vesta Silva was one of three professors leading the discussion, along with Dawson and Amelia Darrouzet-Nardi, assistant professor of global health studies.

These professors each brought a different perspective to the panel. Silva brought an interpretation of media coverage, Dawson brought an epidemiological perspective and Darrouzet-Nardi brought an opinion on the economic ramifications of the virus.

Dawson began the talk by saying that Zika was first discovered in 1947 in Uganda and has likely mutated since then. She said that the diseases that the World Health Organization believe to stem from Zika, are Guillain-Barré and microcephaly.

“It’s going to be hard to know what’s going on for the next six to eight months,” said Dawson.

Guillain-Barré sets in after the Zika virus symptoms have cleared up, and causes paralysis. It is an autoimmune syndrome that attacks the nervous system, and if it attacks the respiratory system, for instance, it can be life-threatening. Although many people recover, some are left as paraplegics.

Microcephaly is a birth defect where babies are born with abnormally small heads, causing developmental issues and brain damage.

Darrouzet-Nardi said the economic impact can be measured on three levels.

The first would be in a microeconomic sense, which includes individual decision-making such as travel plans.

“This is people’s behavior,” she said.

The second would be in a macroeconomic way, including things like the distance between recorded cases and how it was spread.

The third includes the cost for treatment and prevention of the virus, as well as long-term impacts like the impact of having a reduced labor force because of those with microcephaly.

Silva expressed an interest in the narrative surrounding the virus. According to Silva, news outlets often follow a consistent pattern when covering disease outbreaks, labelling the disease the villain and labelling the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other doctors the heroes.

“Zika’s not following the regular narrative,” Silva said. “The story right now seems to be sympathy rather than heroic triumph of disease.”

According to Silva, the CDC has been more attentive to how they demonstrate the spread of diseases on the maps they publish, as the infected areas used to be published in the color red.

“[It looks like] it’s bleeding across the map,” she said.

For the spread of Zika, they have instead colored the map with purple.

Silva also said the mosquito is being labelled as the villain, which is unusual. News stories have been depicting the mosquito in a powerful light that resembles the usual depiction of diseases.

Silva said she is interested in how many ways the narrative of the virus may change. She said the United States as a whole has a tendency to care less about non-U.S. citizens, particularly when they are people of color.

Silva said poor women of color are the most vulnerable to the virus currently, as they cannot afford health screenings and because there has recently been a problem of women being abandoned by their partners after they have a baby with microcephaly.

“I think we’ll see more pressure to change [the story] if we see more people affected in the U.S.,” Silva said.

Dawson and Darrouzet-Nardi both have continuing interest in the virus as well. The professors plan to research how women in the U.S. are responding to the Zika virus by surveying women from U.S. states bordering Mexico, including California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas.

They plan to survey at least 800 women, asking if they have changed their sexual practices,  contraceptive uses and travel plans since hearing news of the dangers of microcephaly, according to their research project crowd funding site. Their project will span from April to August.

Silva said various solutions have been proposed to fight the virus, including everything from genetic mutation, vaccination and eradicating the mosquito that carries it.

Silva also said she knows several students who have been looking into the issue substantially.

“Some of the students I know have been thinking about it a lot if they have family in Texas and Florida,” Silva said.

Darrouzet-Nardi said she has had students speak with her about the virus as well, even asking her advice on travel plans.

“I’ve had students ask me if they should go to Mexico on spring break or not,” Darrouzet-Nardi said.

This issue did arise during the talk, when Zachary Blank, ’17, asked if he and his family should be concerned about their travel plans to Mexico. The simple answer was probably not, unless he was planning on trying to conceive a child in the near future.

Silva also expected some students to attend the talk who had never heard of the virus and those who did not know much about it.

Timur Dikec, ’16, did raise some general questions about how the virus spread so widely.

“I was curious as to how it got to Australia,” Dikec said.

Dawson said that it is easy for the mosquitos to travel anywhere people are. For instance, the mosquitos that carry the disease, called aedes aegypti, could travel on planes or boats. They are small, daytime insects that live off of humans predominantly, according to Silva. Dawson said this can make them dangerous because they can also carry yellow fever, dengue and chikungunya, other viral diseases.

Nardi and Silva emphasized other factors that could have contributed to the spread of the disease, namely climate change. Silva said many of these larger problems have not been included in the media coverage of the disease.

“What we’re not seeing at all in the narrative is any sense of systemic cause,” Silva said.

The talk concluded with Dawson and Darrouzet-Nardi notifying students of their research plans. They plan to use a crowdfunding site, and if they get the most participants contributing to their cause, they will win a $10,000 grant. If they win the grant, they plan to survey Puerto Rico and the gulf states as well. The crowdfunding site will go live on March 15.