The worrisome rise in microcephaly cases in Brazil has experts scrambling to determine a cause. Is it the Zika virus? Or is it something else? Most experts believe there is a link between Zika and microcephaly — the World Health Organization says it expects to confirm the link in a matter of weeks — but others have raised questions about their findings.
This is a health crisis that has been widely reported but not so easily explained, so it’s become fertile ground for all sorts of conspiracy theories, including one which blames the Zika virus on genetically modified mosquitos.
Conspiracy theories aren’t just for cranks. They’re also the frequent tools of your most profit-minded health crusaders. Moms Across America, Robyn O’Brien, David Wolfe, Mamavation, the Food Babe, Health Nut News — all more than willing to use the specter of a growing health epidemic to sell you their natural treatments and “cures.”
Autism? Allergies? Obesity? If it’s on the rise and it’s complicated, it’s also the perfect scenario to exploit for profit. These groups and individuals make their living preying on fear. I’m sure it won’t be long before the Food Babe starts marketing an anti-Zika protein powder for pregnant ladies.
Microcephaly affects children in potentially severe and life-altering ways, so it’s not surprising that people are freaking out. But the rise in microcephaly cases isn’t just a confusing and frightening health scare, it’s also a foreign threat, and that seems to make it especially frightening to Americans.
Health crises that originate outside of the United States — like Zika and Ebola — tend to set off an intense panic amongst Americans, even though so far Zika cases in the United States have been mostly travel-associated* with the risk of microcephaly obviously limited to pregnant women.
That’s not to say microcephaly isn’t scary or that there isn’t a risk of the Zika virus spreading to the U.S. Microcephaly is a severe diagnosis, so I can understand why people would be frightened. But at some point privileged Americans need to ask themselves why they always seem to be the most panicked when, paradoxically, they often seem to be the least at risk.
In the last few days, a new erroneous conspiracy theory has emerged as a story blaming the rise in microcephaly cases on “Monsanto larvicide” has gained a great deal of traction in the press. A group referring to themselves as Physicians in the Crop-Sprayed Villages has issued a statement arguing that the increase in microcephaly cases isn’t due to the Zika virus at all, but instead a larvicide manufactured by a Monsanto subsidiary.
Anti-GMO websites like Ecowatch ran with the story, repeating the “Monsanto larvicide” accusation. Tech Times also ran the story with the “Monsanto larvicide” headline, and then revised it later. But the damage has been done. The story with the original headline continues to be widely shared on social media networks.
Are these stories correct? Could a larvicide be responsible for the microcephaly outbreak? Well, first of all, scientists say there’s no evidence linking pyriproxyfen, the larvicide in question, to microcephaly.
So then what about Monsanto? No, pyriproxyfen isn’t manufactured by Monsanto or any Monsanto subsidiary. It’s made by a Japanese chemical company named Sumitomo, whose relationship to Monsanto has nothing to do with larvicide or mosquitos.
Sumitomo and Monsanto are corporate partners. But their partnership is focused on eliminating weeds, not mosquitos. The Japanese company manufactures flumioxazen, an herbicide used to treat glyphosate-resistant weeds. Flumioxazen is not pyriproxyfen and it’s also not a larvicide. It turns out Monsanto has nothing to do with this story after all. That’s right — nothing.
Monsanto doesn’t make pyriproxyfen. In fact, nothing that Monsanto manufactures is in any way related to Zika or microcephaly. And yet, because Monsanto is the frequent scapegoat of health crusaders — blamed for everything from poisoning our food supply to suicides in India — it’s not surprising that this false story persists.
*Edited to more accurately describe Zika cases in the U.S. At this time, all U.S. cases are travel-associated, but one case involves a patient who had sex with someone who recently traveled to Venezuela.