Zika Spraying Spawns Epidemic of Conspiracy Theories

by | September 16, 2016

By Fred Grimm

An offering of no good choices roused the crowd. City Hall became a cacophony of angry voices. Civic leaders were shouted down. Public health docs, with their unwelcome assessments, were interrupted by clamorous chants. "No more spraying. No more spraying. No more spraying."

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine tried to quiet the rabble. "Come on folks. Please. No one wants Naled."

But there'd be no decorum. The crowd was in the throes of an anti-Naled frenzy, incensed at the aerial spraying over Miami Beach meant to kill off Zika-carrying mosquitoes. No amount of talk about a public health emergency would pacify the Beach's rowdiest commission meeting in memory.

Wednesday's gathering gave us the startling scenario of public health specialists being jeered like a pack of lying dogs with their talk of microcephaly and other terrible birth defects caused by the Zika virus.

It wasn't just that the protesters felt that the risks from the pesticide outweighed the threat from the Zika virus. They -- or at least some loud element of the crowd -- just flatly refused to acknowledge that Zika posed any real danger at all. "There is clear evidence that the link between Zika and microcephaly is very weak," declared Brandon Burke, representing an anti-pesticide group that styles itself the South Florida Poison Response Coalition. Burke was hardly alone in his embrace of junk science.

Of course, this position supposes a worldwide conspiracy among outfits like U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, Public Health England, and the World Health Organization, all of which have warned pregnant women to avoid South Florida.

Apparently, public health scientists and Miami Beach politicians and the mayor of Miami-Dade County and the governor of Florida are only trying to prop up the pesticide industry with this Zika scare. There were a number of references, shouted from the gallery, to an Aug. 17 report posted at FloridaBulldog.org that Florida first lady Ann Scott had a sizable investment in a Louisiana-based mosquito control company.

FloridaBulldog.org said Mosquito Control Services LLC was licensed to work in Florida but noted that the company was not currently a registered vendor with the state government. FloridaBulldog.org did not imply that Rick Scott, with the cooperation of the state's medical community, was ginning up a fake Zika crisis to fatten his wife's portfolio.

"Zika hoax" blamed on Bill Gates, Monsanto, drug companies, the UN, the Rockefeller Foundation and Rick Scott.

But we live in an age of mighty leaps in feeble logic. It helps that the internet enables any of us to tailor science to fit our particular world view. Twitter (#zikahoax) and Facebook are festooned with conspiracy theories blaming the "Zika hoax" on Bill Gates, Monsanto, Big Pharm, the United Nations (in a plot to destabilize Brazil's economy), the Rockefeller Foundation, Rick Scott and "our corporate masters" in an international plot to depopulate the planet.

But the crowd at Miami Beach City Hall was not only against pesticides. When a representative from the British bio-tech company Oxitec told the commission that his company could reduce the local population of the culprit Aedes aegypti by more than 90 percent using genetically modified sterile male mosquitoes, it was as if he had suggested sacrificing small children. A swarm of sexually inadequate bugs sounded better to me than getting bombarded with pesticides, but this crowd was apparently wanting an organic, grass-fed, free-ranging, no GMO, chemical-free alternative.

The real problem, as Mayor Levine and a few commissioners tried (futilely) to explain to their unreceptive constituents, was that since Gov. Scott has declared a state of emergency, Florida law invests the state and (to a lesser extent) the county with the power to decide how to beat down the virus. "It's out of our control," Commissioner John Elizabeth Aleman said, inspiring another chorus of jeers.

Commissioner Michael Grieco introduced a resolution to file a lawsuit to stop the county and state from spraying Naled. The county lawyers warned that not only would the suit likely be tossed out of court, but that the city would be stuck with lawyers' fees. The resolution died without a second from one of his fellow commissioners. ("I feel lonely up here," the commissioner said, but he added that an outpouring of support on social media assured him that "I am not alone.") The spectators responded approvingly to Grieco, who looked quite self-satisfied in his role as martyr of the Zika wars.

Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez said, unhappily, that at the moment, spraying was the only realistic weapon that could stanch the Zika outbreak. She said, "Someone has to be the grownup here."

The crowd, howling in derision, apparently disagreed.

(c)2016 Miami Herald