Most Americans have learned about the Zika virus primarily through online sources. So perhaps it’s not so surprising that Americans are widely misinformed about the Zika virus, which has been portrayed by some online outlets as the end of life as we know it.
In February, 35% of respondents to a survey from the University of Pennsylvania said they believed the Zika virus was being spread by genetically modified mosquitoes, presumably unleashed upon the world by mad scientists or Monsanto.
For better or worse, nearly three out of four Americans rely on the Internet to get information about health topics. The same number of people look up medical information online before visiting a doctor, and that information can color the info they eventually receive from their actual physician.
A month after the University of Pennsylvania survey, Americans are still “woefully misinformed” about the risks of the virus, with people either wildly over- or underestimating the risks. In Boston, the Harvard Opinion Research Program found that far too many Americans don’t understand how the Zika virus spreads or the risks it poses to the United States population.
“There are some important misconceptions about Zika virus,” said Gillian SteelFisher with Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Some of those could prevent people at risk from taking steps to protect their pregnancies. And then there’s the reverse problem, which is there are some misconceptions that could cause people to take unnecessary or inappropriate precautions.”
So far, only a few Americans have been infected with the Zika virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of the 273 Americans who did contract the virus, all of them recently traveled to countries in Latin America or the Caribbean where the Zika virus is rampant.
The virus has been linked to two dangerous conditions, one that causes paralysis and one that causes serious birth defects in children born to mothers with the disease. In Zika-infected countries, there has been an epidemic of children born with microcephaly, which causes small heads and brain damage.
The Harvard survey found that 40% of respondents didn’t realize that Zika could be transmitted sexually. One in four had never heard of the link between Zika and birth defects, while another quarter thought adults infected with Zika were most at risk.
Because the mosquitoes that spread Zika already exist in the southern United States, researchers say the virus could spread during warmer weather. For now, the medical profession hopes that knowledge will be our best defense against the disease.