In a case of shoddy journalism and click-bait-gone-wild, British actress Kelly-Marie Stewart claims she contracted the Zika virus nine years ago in the Dominican Republic, causing a miscarriage and paralysis that continues to affect her to this day.
The former soap-opera star should be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that her horrific encounter with Guillain-Barré Syndrome after a Caribbean vacation must have been caused by Zika, given the growing evidence that the two are linked. But it does not follow from “Zika probably can trigger Guillain-Barré” to “my previously unexplained Guillain-Barré must have been caused by Zika,” and the journalists at the Liverpool Echo and the subsequent army of rebloggers owed Stewart a quick fact-check.
While the Zika virus has been around in parts of Africa and Asia for decades, it’s new to the Americas. The only reason that Zika has come to public attention over the last year is that it has been introduced to a population that hasn’t seen it before — the result is that there is no herd immunity and the virus is able to spread very rapidly.
So if Stewart did in fact contract Zika on that trip, it’s actually more likely that she got it by having sex with someone who had recently traveled to Uganda than from a Dominican mosquito.
Here’s a way more plausible theory: Stewart contracted a viral or bacterial infection in the Dominican Republic that triggered Guillain-Barré and its awful symptoms. It very well could have been a mosquito-born virus (she says she was covered in bites), but not Zika. It’s worth noting that Stewart remembers flu-like symptoms during her vacation, but few people who contract the Zika virus exhibit any symptoms at all.
Doctors still don’t know what causes Guillain-Barré Syndrome, which is an autoimmune response that follows an infection in very rare instances. It’s great that Stewart is using this opportunity to raise awareness for the syndrome and others who have suffered from it — but until she gets her Zika-facts straight she’s going to continue to sound like Leonardo DiCaprio confusing a common weather phenomenon with climate change, muddying the conversation.