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Frog Legs Aren't Chicken and Zika Isn't HIV

February 8, 2016

Zika is spreading across North and South America, bringing the usual mass hysteria that comes along with foreign diseases. While Zika is a serious concern, particularly in Latin America, many people are making unwarranted and, frankly, ridiculous associations between Zika and HIV.


What Is Zika?

Zika is a disease caused by the Zika virus. The virus is relatively new -- it was first isolated in 1947 in the Zika forest in Uganda. Over the past six decades, the disease has been mostly in Africa. Until 2007, when an outbreak in Micronesia led to three-quarters of the population being infected. In 2014, an outbreak was reported in Easter Island, Chile.


How Is Zika Spread?

Zika primarily spreads through mosquitoes. The blood sucking mosquitoes feed on a person already infected with the virus. Infected mosquitoes can then spread the virus to others through bites.

Rarely, Zika virus can be transmitted from mother to child near the time of delivery. Researchers are currently looking into how Zika is transmitted during pregnancy. Little is known how it is passed through sexual contact.


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Why Are Mosquitoes Assholes?

It's not their fault. It's their nature.

Sean Fox, M.D., said it best: Mosquitoes are flying hypodermic needles. Since they've been on the earth, they've been draining us of our blood and infecting us with diseases.

Mosquitoes are responsible for the spread of malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, West Nile virus, and several forms of encephalitis.

Mosquitoes are an efficient disease vector in areas where certain tropical diseases are prevalent -- they multiply frequently, there are so many of them, and they can travel. So in a population where thousands already carry Zika virus, Mosquitoes do well to spread the infection.

Nearly 700 million people get a mosquito-borne illness each year; more than one million people die from these diseases.


What Does All This Have to Do With HIV?

Well, on the clinical end of things, absolutely nothing. Zika doesn't seem to affect people living with HIV in any substantial way. Researchers are currently looking into how Zika is transmitted sexually, but as it stands Zika is seen as a mosquito-borne illness, not a sexually transmitted disease like HIV; Zika and HIV have different viral life cycles; Zika and HIV don't have the same long-term effects (that we know of).

Again, Zika is mostly spread by mosquitoes. HIV is spread through direct contact with infected bodily fluids. Zika can be cleared out by the immune system and out of a person's blood within a week. HIV stays in the blood for life and weakens the immune system. Though both viruses have something to do with blood, it is important to note HIV cannot be transmitted through mosquitoes.

Zika has different effects on different people. Only one in five people with Zika will ever present with symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they are usually mild, lasting up to a week. Very rarely do people die from this virus. HIV does affect people differently but living with HIV typically includes lifelong medication usage, changes in quality of life, family dynamics, etc.

Researchers do not believe Zika has long-term health effects in people. Before the current outbreak, there was no evidence that this infection affected women or their babies. Long-term survivors of HIV have some long-term health issues, including changes in the ability to break down fats and sugars, body shape changes and increased risk of comorbidities.


So Why the Comparison?

Well, it's more social than medical. The hysteria of this unfamiliar and frightening virus harkens back to the early days of the AIDS epidemic. In the case of HIV, Zika, the Legionnaires outbreak of 2015, the Ebola crisis of 2014 or the bird flu panic of 2013, people fear what they don't know, and the media does a piss poor job of explaining it all.

To compensate for not knowing, or the inability to tell the story, we make bad comparisons. It's like when you try a new meat and say it tastes like chicken. While it doesn't hurt anyone to say frog legs taste just like chicken, it does do damage to make comparisons to these very different viruses.

Zika virus is a public health concern in developing nations. If I seem unaffected by that fact, know that I am concerned -- I have family in one of the 29 affected countries. But I live here in the United States, where Zika is not yet a public health issue.

From Jan. 2015 to Feb. 2016, there have been 35 cases in the continental United States, all travel related. There have been 10 cases in U.S. territories of which nine were locally acquired. Based on 2014 U.S. population estimates, 0.000014111006585136407% of the general population have shown signs of Zika disease.

U.S. health officials say the risk of an outbreak here is small -- especially with the mosquito control programs currently in place.

It would be difficult for Zika to spread in a population like the U.S., where it is not endemic. If one person in an area of 100,000 people contracts Zika while traveling, it is highly unlikely there would be cause for concern. A mosquito would have to be on a stealth mission to somehow get blood from the person with Zika, then one by one spread the infection to every person in that area without ever being killed. If such a mosquito does exist, we need to give up now because mosquitoes now rule the Earth.

Within the first year of the AIDS epidemic, the number of cases went from five to 270 reported infections. About 50,000 new infections are estimated each year in the United States.


But Why Is It an Issue to Make the Comparison?

"We shouldn't compare Zika with HIV or Ebola, so people don't get the wrong idea and spread hysteria by saying Zika is the new HIV. ... Zika is clearly a 'mosquito virus.' It has adapted to mosquitoes and is usually not in contact with humans in its natural environment, the jungle. Unlike HIV, it hasn't adapted to humans and to being transmitted from one person to another," said Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit, M.D., a virologist at the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg.

When bringing up HIV in relation Zika, it is assumed we are making an apples-to-apples comparison. But this is bananas-to-beef.

A lot more research needs to be done to understand why the sudden change in how the infection presents and the onset of microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome. Though researchers believe the microcephaly and Guillain-Barré is related to Zika, they don't know that for a fact. Microcephaly can occur for myriad reasons, including drug or alcohol use, rubella or chicken pox during pregnancy, and Down syndrome. The causes of Guillain-Barré are unknown but often occur after a respiratory infection, and in some rare cases after surgery.

Even after that research, it is probably safe to say HIV would still be a weak comparison partner.

Just like frog legs are not chicken and I am not Raven-Symoné, Zika is not HIV.

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Althea Fung

Althea Fung

Althea wants to live in a world where adequate health care and health education is accessible to everyone.

As a journalist, she's written on health and health care policy for The Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia, The National Journal in D.C., The Jersey Journal in New Jersey and a variety of health care organizations across the country. Althea is currently the community editor for TheBody.com, where she helps coordinate the blog contributions and reports on HIV-related news and events.

When she's not writing and editing, Althea is trying to turn her daydreams into the next blockbuster movie by osmosis.

Althea's hobbies include obsessively re-reading books by Octavia Butler, napping, pretending to be a doctor and watching police procedural dramas. Her favorite doctors are House M.D., Doc Martin and the subway skin savior Dr. Zizmor.

Email your questions, concerns and comments to afung@thebody.com. To find out what Althea's up to, follow her on Twitter, stalk her on Facebook and like her photos on Instagram. For random musings and her thoughts on health care, visit her website, altheafung.com.


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