Zika risk at Haj shows the need for news

A pest control worker fumigates the grounds of a apartment block in Singapore. Ulet Ifansasti / Getty Images
A pest control worker fumigates the grounds of a apartment block in Singapore. Ulet Ifansasti / Getty Images

With Haj about to begin, alongside this cherished tenet of Islam there is also likely to be an unfortunate spate of rumour-mongering about whether this annual gathering of the faithful could lead to the Zika virus spreading into countries that have had no reported cases.

The sudden spike in reports of the virus more than 50 years after its discovery, combined with a lack of understanding about the other ways it can spread or its potential health effects beyond causing birth defects, is exactly the kind of situation in which rumours and speculation are able to flourish. Link that with the world’s biggest annual religious pilgrimage, involving a mix of participants from countries with and without reported outbreaks, and the likelihood is high of half-truths and misrepresentations gaining ground.

This is exactly why it is essential to ensure widespread publicity is given to credible information, such as the report we published yesterday saying the risk to the population of the UAE remains very low because of the absence of the main mosquito species known to be transmitting the virus.

With Dubai and Abu Dhabi being major aviation hubs, there is a compelling need to highlight the effectively negligible level of risk that mosquitos from infected areas might make their way here via flights. Dr Oliver Brady, a research fellow in mathematical modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the co-author of a report published this month that evaluated the virus’s ability to spread, said it was unlikely the Aedes aegypti mosquitos would even end up on a flight, let alone be able to survive to infect people at the destination.

Certainly, there is a need for this virus to be taken seriously. The remaining gaps in our knowledge about its transmission and effects are matters of legitimate concern, as is the way most infected people do not exhibit symptoms so, unlike those who catch yellow fever, chikungunya or dengue fever spread by this species of mosquito, they face no restrictions on travel.

But equally there is need for the risk to be put in its proper context. Especially in a modern media environment in which people too often get their information solely via headlines rather than from reading the finer details, it is essential that we have credible information to displace wild speculation and scare-mongering.

Published: September 4, 2016 04:00 AM


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