Fear: The Defence Mechanism Against ZIKA

The first case of the locally-transmitted Zika Virus was identified on our shores on 27 August 2016. In the flurry of interventions over the last fortnight, the number of new Zika cases seems to be on a downward trend. We have mobilised remarkably quickly, with information dissemination and active policy implementation. Our nation’s response has been widely praised by the World Health Organisation.

Interestingly, in comparison with the mortality rates of SARS (9.6%), MERS (36%) and dengue hemorrhagic fever (2-5%), the mortality rate of Zika does not feature in the conversation. According to a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine (July 2016), the likelihood of babies being born with microcephaly from Zika-infected mothers in the first trimester ranges from 0.98% and 13.2%. For mothers who contracted Zika during and beyond the second trimester, there is no link between Zika and babies born with microcephaly. This clearly contrasts how other viruses pose significantly more of a threat than Zika. And if not by mortality figures, then what exactly has the nation gripped in fear and interest?

Take me, but please spare my children!

In a world where the most certain event in life is death, animals’ basic instinct is to survive, and the fittest then bear offspring for the continuation of their species. We have an innate instinct to pass on our genes to our offspring. It is this basic instinct that makes our children most precious to us, and as parents, our primary goal is to protect our children. As such, we are more inclined to invest more in the health of our children than ourselves, hence the interest and fear of Zika, which primarily threatens our offspring.

What doesn't kill us makes us stronger

As seen from its worldwide coverage, the world cares about Zika. On a national level, for the sake of tourism and investor confidence, it is in our best interests to execute a swift and strong response to any virus in the global limelight that reaches our shores.

The media plays a critical role of spreading awareness, disseminating information on how to protect ourselves, and in so-doing, we show the rest of the world that we are always ready to effectively respond to potential crisis. As such, our elevated awareness toward Zika is not simply a defensive response, but also an opportunity to shine, and we certainly have taken it head on.

Another silver lining of the battle against Zika is that it has forced us to shift our attention back to the Aedes mosquito. Mosquitos are the world’s deadliest animals, and we are lucky that it is Zika and not a virus more sinister that is making us step up our efforts against mosquitos. If we can continue our fierce vigilance against these deadly insects, Zika may in effect be vaccinating the nation from the threat of future epidemics that could hurt us, and this bodes well for the future.

What thinking errors are we making?

If there are inaccuracies in our thinking, the results of our actions can be confounding. Thinking errors include catastrophising (“getting Zika would be the worst thing that could ever happen to me”) and jumping to conclusions (“seeing Zika on the news everyday means it must be a real threat to me”). These irrational thoughts have led to similar exaggerated behaviours of emptying insect repellant shelves of pharmacies and department stores as well as Zika-dominated family and friend conversations. It is normal for the human mind to think of worst-case scenarios and take precautions. However, it becomes an issue when we are driven by emotional reactions of fear and fail to exert our own realistic appraisal of other courses of action. The next time we hear or read about Zika, take a moment to process the information. There is abundant information about this virus and its impact in Singapore. Without allowing ourselves to be hijacked by our emotional fear, ask yourself about the likelihood of being affected.

The dangers of Zika are real. Yet, in our battle against Zika, we must not be paranoid or consumed by fear. By studying the facts and enhancing our knowledge on Zika, we need to find the balance between vigilance and living our lives well. If we forgo what gives us joy, we may already be beaten by Zika without ever being infected by it.

Written by Dr. Joel Yang