Zika virus is much in the news lately, with all sorts of the-sky-falling scenarios. Now, you might be wondering why a blog devoted primarily to ranch life would have an article about the Zika virus. It’s partly because I wear two hats (health professional and rancher) and partly because there really is a connection.
Zika is a mosquito-borne virus in the same family as yellow fever and a few other related nasties. It’s actually a rather mild illness, and many people never even know they’ve been infected. Symptoms include headache, fever and muscle aches and are generally very mild. Most people who have Zika recover just fine. The virus was first identified in 1947 in Africa. It’s gradually spread throughout tropical areas, probably due to the travel habits of humans, and is now appearing in more temperate areas. The mosquitoes that spread it live in many areas of the world, so odds are, Zika will continue to travel.
If you read the popular press, Zika sounds like the third horseman of the Apocalypse (that would be pestilence — the others are war, famine and death). According to the stories, it may cause microcephaly (improper brain development) in newborn babies and miscarriages in pregnant women. Except, there are several big problems with that theory:
- Zika has been around for about 60 years. How come, all of a sudden, there’s a connection with microcephaly?
- How come it’s primarily Brazil that is reporting microcephaly? Not only Brazil but northeast Brazil?
- Why, when the virus has been around in Africa for over 60 years, have there been no reports of increased microcephaly? And this includes African countries in which 75 percent of the population is infected with Zika.
A number of doctors in Argentina and Brazil have gone on record as saying the problem isn’t Zika, it’ s the insecticide used to kill the mosquitoes, which has been added to drinking water in northeast Brazil for the last 18 months, which is about when the microcephaly started showing up. The insecticide, pyroproxyfen, is made by Sumimoto Chemical, a Japanese subsidiary of Monsanto. In French Polynesia, there may be a link between Zika and neurological problems, but at this point it’s very tenuous, and the numbers aren’t even close to what’s going on in Brazil.
So how does this relate to ranching, farming and food production? First, the idea that we should wipe out insects is not only stupid but counter-productive in the long run. Mosquitoes, for example, are an important food source for other insects, bats, birds and reptiles, all of which are important to the eco-system. Second, all insecticides (even the “safe” ones) have toxic effects beyond the population of insects you’re trying to knock off. It’s like taking a machine gun into a crowded room to kill one target. DDT resulted in thin-shelled eggs in many bird populations. Neonicotinids are implicated in bee deaths. Third, pesticides (and herbicides, their cousins in the weed-killing world) never achieve 100% kill; you’re selecting for resistant insects and plants. That’s why we now have so many Round-up resistant weeds. Those of us who raise food should be very concerned about the tendency to strafe fields, ponds and towns with these poisons.
Now, mosquitoes are a nuisance, and they can carry some rather nasty stuff (yellow fever is no joke; if untreated, the mortality rate is about 50%). But it probably makes better sense to prevent mosquito bites than to try and eliminate the mosquitoes. Use screens on your windows, wear long-sleeved shirts and pants if you’re outside in the early morning and evening (especially once the weather starts to warm). Apply mosquito repellent. Here’s my homemade and highly effective recipe: mix 2 ounces vodka with five ounces olive oil. Add 125 drops of peppermint essential oil. Shake well before using and reapply frequently. Unlike DEET, which has been shown to have some neurological effects in people who use it regularly, this one shouldn’t cause any problems. Eucalyptus essential oil may also be used in place of the peppermint.
Unfortunately, I’m willing to bet that there will be large amounts of money spent on developing an unecessary Zika vaccine and lots of insecticide spraying going on in the future…