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Zika Virus, Birth Defects, and Conspiracy Theories

Zika, a formerly unremarkable virus named for the forest in Uganda where it was discovered in 1947, is now the latest emergent disease to spawn serious concerns around the world. It is spread by a familiar mosquito, Aedes aegypti, and probably by the closely related Aedes albopictus, vectors notorious for spreading yellow fever, dengue, and chikungunya. Until recently, Zika had been reported at low frequency in various tropical locations, but since 2014, for reasons not fully understood, it has spread explosively throughout much of South America, especially Brasil. One key to its rapid spread has been the distribution of the mosquito vector, which has rebounded after robust and effective control measures were allowed to lapse throughout the Americas after their success in reducing the prevalence of yellow fever.

The mild fever that usually results from infection with the Zika virus is not the source of concern. The alarm associated with Zika follows the suspicion that infection during pregnancy causes mothers to deliver babies with microcephaly, a type of abnormal brain development marked by irreparable neurological defects with profound, lifelong implications. Even though the cause has not been determined

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