Taylor graduate Tobi Ballantine clears up the misconceptions behind the virus
By Katherine Yeager | Echo
For Tobi Ballantine (’16), Zika became more than a buzzword. Eight days after returning from the Dominican Republic, Ballantine’s father, Michael Ballantine, contracted the Zika virus from an infected mosquito.
After speaking with her father, Ballantine knew that the virus was not life-threatening and, true to her background in comedy, saw humor in the situation.
“I thought it was funny, honestly,” Tobi said. “I knew it wasn’t that serious, so when my dad was complaining about his sickness and then told us it was Zika, I was just like ‘oh my, typical Dad, only he would get Zika.’”
She attributes the lack of seriousness in the situation to the nature of the virus. According to Director and Associate Professor of Public Health Robert “Bob” Aronson, while Zika is prevalent in many areas, the virus is generally mild in nature—it is just one of many diseases transmitted by mosquitos.
The mosquitoes themselves, according to Aronson, can’t travel very far. The virus, originating from a river in Uganda, has existed for years but never had a widespread effect on the Western Hemisphere until this year. It is transmitted by people, carrying the virus as they travel.
Even so, he remarked, it is highly unlikely that a student at Taylor would contract the illness. Indiana lays outside the 23-state vector that is considered affected by its spread.
“There isn’t a concern for Taylor students,” Aronson said. “Even students studying abroad face little risk. We don’t have the vector here in this part of the country. Occasionally, you will find one mosquito carried by belongings or a moving van, but this is not their habitat.”
Aronson, who is taking a group of students to Ecuador in January, plans to pack high-strength mosquito repellant. For those concerned about the virus, he suggests bringing Deet and long sleeves. However, he adds, students are unlikely to wear long sleeves due to the heat.
Jeff was frustrated with the illness, feeling symptoms of fatigue, fever, joint pain and a characteristic rash. But in many cases, according to Aronson, the virus is asymptomatic, leaving many symptom-free. The symptoms that do occur mimic Dengue fever, Yellow fever or Chikungunya. Symptoms last for several weeks before dissipating, but the virus can remain in one’s system for longer.
The real risk, Aronson remarks, is for pregnant women or women who wish to become pregnant in the next six months. Women in the former situation face difficulty without a full knowledge of an effective course of treatment. Research is underway, but no human testing has been completed. Women in the latter situation are discouraged from becoming pregnant for six months.
Outside of the affected areas, Aronson states that the disease can only be contracted sexually. In areas which discourage abstinence, birth control or safe sex, the disease often runs rampant. Individuals contracting the disease through sexual transmission are advised to remain cautious for six months—guidance that is often ignored.
Aronson adds it is unknown whether or not animals can act as hosts of the virus.
Mr. Ballantine contracted the disease from an infected mosquito. He is not alone. Ballantine states he knew of many in the Dominican Republic who contracted the virus.
“It is extremely rampant in the Dominican Republic right now,” Tobi Ballantine said. “The statistics are actually being underreported because it would hurt the tourism economy if the true numbers got out.”
Aronson confirmed socio-economic issues are legitimate side effects of the Zika epidemic. Citing Miami, Florida, as the primary source of Zika-transmitting mosquitoes in the U.S., Aronson remarks many have canceled travel plans to the popular tourist destination. He believes people’s reaction to the virus is often exaggerated.
“It just always strikes me the things that people are afraid of compared to the things they ignore,” Aronson said. “People exaggerate small risks.”
According to Ballantine, her father fully recovered within a week. However, the disease still remains a widespread issue within its vectors, requiring careful ongoing research and implementation of advised health practices.
For Grant County residents, the risk of contracting Zika is low. Thoughtfulness, remarks Aronson, not fear, is the healthy response.