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article imageViral story linking Zika virus, microcephaly to Monsanto debunked

By Megan Hamilton     Feb 18, 2016 in Science
A spate of stories linking birth defects to Monsanto instead of the Zika virus have been widely debunked, and Monsanto spoke out on the issue Monday in order to clear up "rumors and misinformation."
The controversy started over the weekend when a new theory went viral. It linked one pesticide that works as a larvicide and the Monsanto Corporation to causing scores of microcephaly cases in Brazil, Fortune reports.
Among scientists and health care officials, there is nearly universal consensus that the cause of microcephaly is, without doubt, the mosquito-borne Zika virus. Not only that, but Monsanto has nothing to do with the chemical Pyriproxyfen and doesn't even make larvicides.
But articles in online publications The Free Thought Project and Tech Times as well as other sites reported on faulty information that was provided by the Physicians in the Crop-Sprayed Towns.
Then one state in Brazil, prompted by this information, suspended the use of the chemical.
Alma Almendrala, the Healthy Living Senior Editor for The Huffington Post Healthy Living, notes that the report is entirely wrong.
The report conveys inaccurate information about the history of the Zika virus, and second-guesses the timetables of microcephaly cases and use of the larvicide in water treatment. Then, she writes, it ends in a diatribe warning against the use of other types of mosquito control efforts. This, in a country where dengue fever, chikungunya, and yellow fever are entirely common. Not only is this ill-conceived, it's actually dangerous, she notes.
The report causes people to panic and prevents effective responses to disease-carrying vectors, something which is a "very substantial negative," said Ian Musgrave, an expert on neurotoxicology and pharmacology at the University of Adelaide.
"If they wanted to control the mosquitoes, what are they going to use now? Something even more toxic?" he asked.
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases have both criticized the report, calling it "sketchy."
"The mistake is not the position against or in favor of the larvicide, but to insist in causal inferences without evidence," said Ligia Bahia, a public health expert at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. She's also not happy about the report distracting from the very real threat of Zika virus, Almendrala notes.
Scientific evidence continues to mount, and lab studies have already confirmed the presence of Zika virus in the blood, tissues, and amniotic fluid of fetuses and babies diagnosed with microcephaly.
In microcephaly, the circumference of the head is smaller than normal because the brain has quit growing or hasn't developed properly, according to this article. It can be present at birth, but it also sometimes develops during the first years of life. The most common causes of this condition are genetic abnormalities that interfere with a fetus' developing cerebral cortex. Microcephaly may also be associated with Down syndrome, and chromosomal or neurometabolic syndromes. Babies can also be born with microcephaly if their mothers abused alcohol or other drugs, or contracted German measles or chicken pox during pregnancy.
In a recent and entirely distressing example, a woman in Brazil during the first trimester of her pregnancy, confirmed at 32 weeks that the fetus inside her had severe microcephaly, even having calcifications in the brain and placenta.
An autopsy of the fetus showed that the brain was nearly completely smooth and was collecting fluid. The developing brain was also full of calcifications. Doctors found evidence of Zika virus in the brain tissue, but nowhere else in the body. Some analyses suggested that the virus replicated and hid in the fetus' brain. The damage caused in this instance may have slowed the developing brain at around 20 weeks gestation.
Some 41 cases have been confirmed as Zika-related microcephaly, Fortune notes. In an additional 421 confirmed cases of microcephaly, the cause hasn't been determined as yet, Brazil's Health Ministry reports. More than 3,800 cases are still being investigated, and the World Health Organization says it will likely be able to officially establish the link between the virus and microcephaly within the coming weeks.
Many of the articles also erroneously said that Sumitomo, the company which produces the chemical, was a subsidiary of Monsanto.
In a statement, Monsanto responded that there's no connection between the company and the products it sells to either the Zika virus or microcephaly. Moreover, the company doesn't manufacture or sell Pyriproxyfen, and doesn't manufacture or sell larvicides.
Monsanto said it does not own Sumitomo Chemical Company. Instead, the company is a business partner.
Sumitomo has also issued a statement to the Wall Street Journal, denouncing the report linking the larvicide to microcephaly, Almendrala notes. The company noted that the chemical has been approved for mosquito control by the World Health Organization. It has been used in several countries, including France, Denmark, Turkey, Spain, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic.
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