The Great Zika Freak Out. A Teaching Moment in the Psychology of Fear
A new disease with an exotic name, Zika virus, is spreading ‘explosively’ around the world. It may be causing babies to be born with shrunken heads and brains. No one has immunity. Experts admit significant uncertainty about how the disease spreads, what symptoms it causes, or just which parts of the population face the greatest danger. And the media is going bonkers. There could not be a more perfect set of conditions for a full blown freak out about a threat that plenty of evidence also suggests may not be that great a threat at all. And that kind of risk reaction can be dangerous all by itself.
I’m no expert in Zika virus or infectious diseases. For the scientific particulars, one great source is Helen Branswell of STAT Everything You Need to Know About Zika Virus. There is also a solid backgrounder in the New York Times (Short Answers to Hard Questions About Zika Virus)
The CDC has an information site. So does the World Health Organization (WHO).
But interestingly, the WHO information site is FAR more measured than the public statements by WHO head Dr. Margaret Chan, who spoke in much more dramatic terms.
“Last year the disease was detected in the Americas, where it is spreading explosively,”
“The level of alarm is extremely high. Arrival of the virus in some cases has been associated with a steep increase in the birth of babies with abnormally small heads.”
“The possible links have rapidly changed the risk profile of Zika from a mild threat to one of alarming proportions.”
Dr. Chan’s statements, which almost surely will be widely criticized as poor risk communication, set the world press into a Zika frenzy: