Hey, Conspiracy Theorists: Zika Is Real, and We Have to Do Something About It

A rowdy crowd gathered today in Miami Beach to discuss the Zika epidemic and whether the city should spray controversial pesticides from planes to fight it.

But there was an odd undercurrent to that talk: Many in the crowd insisted that the whole Zika phenomenon is overblown and that the virus doesn't actually cause devastating birth defects. At one point, the crowd even reacted with audible groans when Dr. Christine Curry insisted that "we need to protect pregnant women and children from a virus."

Some even insisted that those working to fight the disease are pawns in a grand conspiracy to pass a fake virus off on the American populace. Well, take it from Curry: That's crazy talk.

"I have been involved in the Zika response since December, when we weren't sure it was a thing," she told the audience. "And it's a thing. I have been taking care of women who have tested positive for Zika since March and delivering their babies since March."

She then added that, in the past five months, women with microcephaly-positive babies have been weeping on her shoulder. "Zika is real, and while we don't understand it fully, that is not a reason to dismiss its impact," she said.

The fact that Curry was forced to speak to Beach residents at all today underlines the strange reality in which Miami now finds itself: As mosquito-control experts expend more effort to beat back Zika, conspiracy theorists are now coming out of the woodwork to try to persuade the county to stop doing anything to fight the virus at all.

And rather than calming people, the local government's messy response to Zika has only emboldened the conspiracy-minded. At a time when the county must do something to battle Zika, a series of unforced public-relations blunders from Gov. Rick Scott, Miami Beach's city government, the county, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has slowly eroded trust in those officials.

To be fair, Miamians are far from the first people to imply that the Zika virus is some sort of government hoax. While microcephaly cases spiked in Brazil and across Latin America in February, people began to blame everything from genetically modified mosquitoes to vaccines to the Rockefeller Foundation for the birth defects, rather than Zika.

But like most conspiracy theorists, people have clung to the idea that Zika isn't a threat despite a mountain of facts to the contrary. Michael Specter, a respected science writer at the New Yorker, debunked the idea that GMO mosquitoes were to blame for the outbreak in February:

The logic of the genetically modified-mosquitoes conspiracy theory is hard to grasp: it has been four years since they were first released in Brazil. Human pregnancies last nine months. Surely some babies must have been born in the intervening three years. Why were they spared the microcephaly if the genetically modified mosquitoes are to blame? Moreover, the altered mosquitoes had previously been released in the in the Cayman Islands, Malaysia, and Panama without causing problems. Viruses constantly spread and mutate, and that began long before humans arrived on Earth.
Normally, it would be easy to dismiss Zika skeptics as mere crackpots. But their speculation is clouding an important, reasoned discussion over which techniques ought to be used to fight the virus and whether pesticides should be sprayed over multiple square miles of a large, cosmopolitan city.

There's very real reason to argue about the use of naled, one of the pesticides that will be sprayed over Miami Beach beginning this Friday.

The organophosphate family of chemicals to which naled belongs is deeply controversial and increasingly frowned-upon in public health circles, and none of the scientists who has spoken to New Times has described it as particularly "safe." Instead, all said either that it was a "necessary evil" to fight the even-worse Zika virus or that the pesticide should be banned outright. Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Grieco, who called today's emergency workshop meeting, tried to start a debate over whether to use it.

But instead, Miami Herald reporter Joey Flechas tweeted that he repeatedly heard attendees groaning and scoffing at pregnant women who were simply asking for protection from the virus.

Still, it's easy to see why many residents don't feel like they can trust the information coming from the government right now. At best, the PR response from elected officials has been a bit messy; at worst, the Republican Governor Scott has been accused of using a public health crisis to try to sour Democratic Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine's chances at running for governor.

The list of contradictions and missteps on behalf of the government is fairly long already: After the New York Times and Miami Herald reported that Zika had hit Miami Beach, Levine hopped on television to accuse reporters of spreading "misinformation." He then stressed that "there is no epidemic, no outbreak of Zika in Miami Beach." This was wrong, and 14 hours later, Scott said in a news conference that there was indeed an outbreak.

Levine then accused Scott of withholding vital information from the Miami Beach government to score "political points" — a charge that the governor has not entirely proven false.

The mixed messages have continued this week. CDC director Tom Frieden had earlier told reporters that spraying aerially over Miami Beach was impossible, since South Beach's buildings were too tall and the wind over the ocean was too strong.

But yesterday, the CDC and county changed their minds, and now say that they are able to use planes to waft pesticide over the area. But some people still don't agree: Both nationally and locally, mosquito control experts have questioned if the CDC's aerial spraying tactics are actually working to kill Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.

Then, when New Times asked Miami-Dade county mosquito control yesterday why the CDC had first said spraying from planes in Miami Beach wasn't possible, a mosquito control spokesperson said she wasn't even aware that Frieden had said that.

So is it any wonder that residents aren't sure who they can believe when it comes to Zika?

Most scientists agree Miami needs some kind of aggressive mosquito-fighting plan before more children are born with birth defects. This requires that everyone, at a minimum, believe Zika is a real threat.

But until government officials start acting like they're all on the same page, they're leaving a small window open for doubt.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.