The Importance of Context: Media Frenzy and the Zika Virus

Amy Jackson deconstructs the media headlines on the Zika Virus and argues that what we must avoid is ‘media spin’ and exaggerated headlines, rather we need clarity and greater context.

In one of my first lectures of this year, Hans Rosling impressed upon the bewildered class that:

“You have to know the world to change it”

Whilst that may be the most obvious statement, my limited experience suggests it is often not followed. There is a real danger in development that we go full guns blazing into a crisis without understanding what is going on.

USAID / Creative Commons License

USAID / Creative Commons License. Picture of Hans Rosling


Cue, the Zika Virus.

Unless you have been hiding in a hole, you will have noticed that the media are ever so slightly panicking about the Zika virus. The virus constitutes a public health emergency of international concern and so should be taken seriously. But, before going into panic mode, I think this is one of those examples where a bit of knowledge will go a long way in understanding and tackling the virus whilst avoiding getting caught up in the media frenzy.

To try and demonstrate this, I’ve taken three suitably panic inducing headlines from UK newspapers and attempted to give them some context…

1) ‘Brazil warns women not to get pregnant as Zika virus is linked to rare birth defect

Reminiscent of ineffective HIV prevention campaigns, warning women not to get pregnant may seem like a sensible idea, but avoids two important issues:

1) It takes two to tango.

Any campaign to reduce pregnancy requires a focus on both genders and, in a country such as Brazil, must take into account aspects of gender power dynamics. As of 2013, Brazil had the 7th highest rate of violence against women, with sexual violence severely under reported.

2) Abortion.

Abortion is highly restricted in many South American countries. In Brazil, abortion is the 4th leading cause of maternal mortality, with 1-4 million unsafe abortions performed every year. This tells us that women who get pregnant may not mean to get pregnant (and so encouraging them not to might not work) and highlights the danger of increased unsafe abortions in the midst of panic. Governments will need to liberalise the law in order for women to have access to full family planning and the choice to not to get pregnant.

2) ‘As the Zika virus is branded a global health emergency…are YOU at risk of the infection that can shrink babies’ brains?

Like Ebola, I get the sense that Zika started to attract attention the minute it came closer to home. 3 travellers who had come back to the UK with Zika only added to the panic.  But, it might be too soon to hide under the duvet…

            1) Mosquitoes

The vectors for Zika are mosquitoes from the Aedes species. They survive best in areas without piped water systems and are mainly found in tropical and subtropical climates, only biting uncovered skin during the day. Sitting in snowy Stockholm wearing a ridiculous number of layers, it seems safe to say that the environment in Northern Europe at least, is not conducive to the spread of the virus on a large scale. (The second ever case of sexually transmitted Zika has just been reported- it will be interesting to see where this goes as more information becomes available…)

            2) Causality

Whilst we know that there seems to be a link between the virus and microcephaly, it is not proven. We don’t know if there are other exposures that may change the effect of the virus on pregnant women, nor when the women got the virus. At this point, there is a hopeful chance that countries have overestimated the link between Zika and microcephaly. We need to establish the link, before we start to panic!

Conred Guatemala / Creative Commons License

Conred Guatemala / Creative Commons License‘ 


3) Zika virus could be bigger global health threat than Ebola, say health experts

Zika and Ebola may be newsworthy, but there are much bigger global health threats that are a lot less sexy. Both viruses could have been much less serious if larger threats had been dealt with. A strong health system to cope with and track epidemics; improved WASH to reduce the spread of the virus; and high standards of maternal and child health, so that morbidity and mortality in mothers and children is not the norm.

And so, with these headlines in mind; before getting into a panic about Zika or the next media frenzy, know your context. By doing so, I hope it will be easier to work out the most useful way to act and hopefully spread some knowledge to counter the prevailing media panic.








The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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