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February 23, 2016

Penn survey: Half of Americans concerned Zika will spread to where they live

Misinformation abounds about the mosquito-borne disease

Half of Americans fear that the Zika virus will spread to where they live, and many hold inaccurate beliefs about the virus, according to a survey released Tuesday by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Fifty-one percent of Americans reported being "somewhat" or "very" concerned about the virus, currently most prevalent in Brazil, spreading to their city. There have been more than 80 cases of Zika found in the U.S., according to the CDC, but all of them involved people who traveled abroad.

The center surveyed more than 1,000 people from Feb. 12 to 16 through landlines and cellphones. The margin of error was +/- 3.74 percent for the group as a whole. 

Women are more likely to be concerned than men (58 versus 43 percent), perhaps because they worry about acquiring the virus during pregnancy. Zika is suspected to be linked to birth defects like microcephaly (a very small head) and Guillain-Barré syndrome (an immune-system disorder).

Thirty-two percent of Hispanics also reported being "very concerned" about the virus spreading, compared to only 16 percent of white non-Hispanics. However, African-Americans were even more likely to be very concerned, at 35 percent.

The survey also showed some widespread misinformation about the disease. The vast majority of respondents understand the virus is spread by mosquitoes. However, 19 percent incorrectly believe that you can catch the disease just by sitting next to someone. Thirty-eight percent also believe that the virus is deadly; in fact, it is rarely fatal and most people have no symptoms at all.

Another common misunderstanding involves the role of genetic engineering. The survey asked respondents whether they were more likely to believe that genetically modified mosquitoes could be used to fight the virus, or if they believed the urban legend that claims that GMO insects caused the virus.

Forty-three percent believed that genetic modification could help, while 35 percent believed the GMO rumor, a myth that the Annenberg Center has debunked on its website

"Understanding science matters. If people want accurate information about Zika, they should turn to the CDC," Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg Center, said in a statement.

She dismissed the GMO rumor as "viral nonsense." But if there's one thing harder than stopping a virus from spreading, it's stopping a viral rumor on the web.

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