Don't panic over Zika virus

President Barack Obama says there is no need to panic over the Zika virus, yet he is requesting an eye-popping $1.8 billion from Congress to stop its spread.

Obama told CBS last week that the good news was, unlike with the Ebola virus, people don’t die of Zika. Unfortunately the response to the Zika virus by some politicians and media outlets is reminiscent of the panic over Ebola in 2014.

Fear has been fueled by a suspected link to Zika’s spread in Brazil and a spike in a birth defect that leaves newborns with abnormally small skulls. Yet Zika infections usually cause either no symptoms or mild symptoms in most people, according to health experts.

The virus is mainly transmitted through bites from the Aedes aegypti mosquito, although cases have also been reported of its transmission through sex and blood transfusions. About 50 cases have been reported so far of travelers bringing the disease into the United States, including 16 in Florida.

Certainly Florida has greater cause for concern than other parts of the country. Our state gets a huge number of travelers from affected areas of Latin America. The mosquito that spreads the virus is also found in much of the state, including Polk County.

While those realities demand an appropriate response in Florida, the state’s politicians seem to have pushed the panic button. Gov. Rick Scott, R-Fla., declared a public health emergency for counties where travel-related cases of Zika have been reported, while Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., is asking Obama to name a “Zika czar.”

For his part, Obama is calling for a $1.8 billion spending plan that includes increased research on the virus, better tests for it, the development of a vaccine, expanded mosquito control and foreign aid. The plan comes after criticism he took for his handling of the Ebola virus in 2014.

He was blasted for failing to respond quickly and appropriately to Ebola by some Republicans who called for quarantines, travel bans and other extreme steps. Obama eventually announced, and Congress approved, a $750 million plan to fight Ebola that included dispatching 3,000 troops to West Africa.

The U.S. built treatment centers there that saw few cases, as the disease subsided long before they were constructed, the Washington Post recently reported. World health officials now say the region is free of Ebola with worst-case scenarios of its spread there and throughout the world never coming to pass.

Perhaps that speaks to the need to react early and overwhelmingly to the Zika outbreak to prevent the worst from happening. But it also shows how U.S. politicians tend to show more concern about scary diseases from foreign countries than everyday health problems that pose a far greater threat to our people.

The flu, for example, kills thousands in the U.S. each year. If only our state and rest of the country took the same approach to the flu as Alachua County, where a school-based immunization program has cut cases throughout the community.

It shouldn’t take the Zika virus to get Floridians to protect themselves against mosquitoes. Simple steps, such as not leaving standing water in yards, will pay health dividends even if the virus is never transmitted by a mosquito there.

We need to take more seriously the diseases affecting Americans on a daily basis before worrying about a virus that doesn’t even cause symptoms in most people. Public health would better served by increasing access to health care and funding of all types of medical research.

These investments would be more effective than spending billions in a panic every time a new disease makes the news.

Reprinted from the Panama City News Herald

Distributed by Creators.com

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