The Zika Virus Pandemic and the Astonishing Power of Anecdotes

The Zika Virus Pandemic and the Astonishing Power of Anecdotes

by Guest Blogger,
Dr. Tyler Kokjohn

Look2Zika 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 (

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 (

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.




One thought on “The Zika Virus Pandemic and the Astonishing Power of Anecdotes

  1. No kidding. I worked in public health, and something about Zika has left me puzzled about the microcephaly connection too. There have been other outbreaks (Micronesia, for instance), but I am having trouble finding any mention of microcephaly prior to this outbreak in Brazil. I sincerely hope that they have not ruled out other environmental factors that could be causing microcephaly in babies born in Brazil. And governments in Central and South America advising women to delay pregnancies for a year or more? That is unprecedented.In primarily Catholic countries too, so this could get very interesting indeed.
    This morning,in my local paper there was an AP article about Zika, and it is accompanied by a photo of a grandmother holding a set of twins born yesterday in Recife, Brazil. The baby girl was born with microcephaly, but not her brother. These two babies were in their mother’s womb at the same time.There must be a really good explanation for why one sibling was affected, but not the other, but no mention in the photo or the article about it. Here is the link and it includes the photo of the twins:

    WHO and CDC caught so much flak over Ebola, that my guess is that they are going overboard with Zika before they have any actual facts, and I find this disturbing. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it is very hard to put it back in there, and it is also dangerous, especially if information is misleading or totally incorrect.

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