The problem with calling mayaro ‘the next Zika’

The tree-dwelling mosquito that transmits Mayaro commonly feeds on monkeys in tropical forests. (Wikipedia Commons)

Scientists have ample reason to keep an eye on a mosquito-borne virus called mayaro, but when the media rushes to declare it the next Zika epidemic, the result may do more harm than good.

Mayaro has been circulating in Latin America for decades, but little is known about the virus. The mosquitoes that spread mayaro are commonly found in jungles and feed mostly on monkeys. The disease causes symptoms similar to that of chikungunya – fever, aching joints and digestive issues. But because the symptoms of mayaro can differ so drastically from person to person, experts say it can be difficult to recognize.

The virus moved into the spotlight after researchers recently found the virus in the blood samples of an 8-year-old boy in Haiti and published the findings in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. It is too early to determine whether mayaro is spreading, but some scientists are wary that if the virus is in Haiti, it could spread more easily by mosquitoes proliferating in the standing water left behind by Hurricane Matthew.

Not surprisingly, U.S. media outlets have been quick to draw attention to the “new foreign-sounding virus” discovered just a few hundred miles away from the U.S. mainland. Some have gone as far as calling mayaro “The Next Zika.”

Although the sensationalistic relationship between new infectious diseases and the media is nothing new, it can be perilous in its own way. The Ebola outbreak of 2014 exemplified how mainstream media can exploit avenues that may attract attention, but lead to dangerous misinformation and even panic in countries like the U.S where it didn’t even pose a threat.

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Another problem with drawing attention to a single virus is that it can distort the public narrative on where funding and research should be allocated. After heavy criticism that the U.S. hadn’t responded fast enough to the Ebola outbreak, Congress dropped $1.4 billion to build treatment centers in West Africa that only a few dozen patients used. Moreover, as the New York Post noted, diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and childhood diarrhea each kill more people every few days than Ebola killed during the entire outbreak.

In a similar way, Zika becoming the disease du jour has posed challenges for health experts struggling to garner attention for the West Nile virus. That’s not to say Zika does not merit attention or funding, but that all mosquito-borne viruses – from Zika, dengue, malaria to chikungunya – pose a threat to public health.

“The thing we should be careful about is there are plenty other viruses that may be the ‘next Zika,’” said John Lednicky, a University of Florida associate professor and lead author of the study published by the CDC, in an interview with Humanosphere. “We just don’t know enough about mayaro to really say.”

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Although his research team made the recent discovery of the mayaro virus in Haiti, Lednicky is the first to admit we don’t know nearly enough about the virus to make assumptions. Mayaro could be endemic in regions across the continent and masked by the symptoms it shares with other mosquito-borne viruses, or the case in the Caribbean could have been something of a fluke.

Mayaro is not the only virus that experts are concerned could become an epidemic. Yellow fever is rare in most areas of Latin America, as well as the U.S., but it could pose a looming threat in vulnerable hot spots such as Houston, which has a large number of expats from endemic countries. Scientists also have their eye on chikungunya, which in recent years spread to 11 countries in Latin America and could go wherever the Aedes aegypti mosquito is able to thrive.

According to Lednicky, we can’t definitively say how concerned we should be about these viruses until we do more surveillance, virology work and basic investigations. There may even be more mosquito-borne viruses that we haven’t identified. In his lab, he says, they’ve recently isolated an unknown virus from South America.

“We haven’t even been able to identify it yet,” said Lednicky, “And I’m sure there are a lot more of them.”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com