The Zika Virus Pandemic and the Astonishing Power of Anecdotes
by Guest Blogger,
Dr. Tyler Kokjohn
Zika virus was once an obscure mosquito-borne pathogen primarily of interest only to a handful of virologists. But a few years ago this essentially unknown virus began spreading and an outbreak that started last May in Brazil may now have involved over a million persons (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/16/health/zika-virus-cdc-pregnant-women-travel-warning.html).
The emerging Zika virus pandemic finally captured global attention with reports of an apparent surge in births of children with microcephaly connected to infections during pregnancy. Strong suspicion that Zika virus might cause this terrible birth defect led the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a travel advisory for persons visiting current epidemic areas and the World Health Organization to declare an international public health emergency (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/02/health/zika-virus-world-health-organization.html).
A reasonable abundance of caution have literally forced public health authorities to act based on sketchy reports and uncorroborated perceptions. Sorting out whether Zika virus infection during pregnancy actually causes or significantly increases the risks of birth defects will take some time. The hard data required to reveal if the incidence of microcephaly really surged after Zika virus infections is being gathered now.
The current Zika virus situation provides a classic example as to how anecdotal accounts may drive scientific investigations in novel and productive directions. Still-to-be-substantiated reports suggested something strange and unprecedented was being observed in Brazil. These accounts compelled fast governmental responses and initiation of full scale research projects to sort out the facts from spurious correlations and possibly erroneous ideas.
Anecdotes can be powerful things.