In yesterday’s column, I answered questions about the Zika virus. Today, I’d like to answer several more, and also talk about how we can protect ourselves against this and other epidemics.
WHAT SHOULD I DO TO PROTECT MYSELF AGAINST ZIKA VIRUS? In my opinion, as of today, there is no reason for most people living in the United States and Canada to be concerned about this virus. The exception is women who are pregnant, who could be in the earliest stages of pregnancy and not yet know it, or who could soon become pregnant.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has advised such women to avoid traveling to the areas of the Western Hemisphere where the Zika virus is rapidly spreading. That includes Mexico and many countries in the Caribbean, Central America and South America. You can find a constantly updated listing of areas with the virus, and much more information about the virus itself, at this Internet address: www.cdc.gov/zika.
Great Britain has advised men who travel to countries where the virus is present to use condoms for about one month during travel and after returning home, which seems like a good idea to me.
WHY ARE WE SUDDENLY FACED WITH THIS VIRUS THAT WE NEVER HEARD ABOUT BEFORE? Because epidemics don’t explode until they suddenly do. Sometimes a virus (or other infectious germ) mutates in a way that allows it to more easily infect humans. Sometimes it is carried to a part of the world where it never has been before, such as by a traveler. If the virus is carried by an insect, the environment can change in a way that favors that insect.
WILL GLOBAL WARMING MAKE ZIKA VIRUS A PROBLEM FOR THE U.S. AND CANADA? The main mosquito that carries Zika virus currently is present in 12 states in the southern U.S. A related mosquito is present in 30 states. With further global warming, both mosquitoes will move farther north, since they prefer warm climates.
WHY DON’T WE HAVE GOOD TESTS, TREATMENTS AND VACCINES FOR ZIKA VIRUS? Public health professionals have long known about Zika. We could have been developing tests, treatments and vaccines for it, but that costs money. Without enough money, we can’t plan for every possible epidemic, or even every likely epidemic. So public health authorities have to prioritize. Until Zika spread to the Western Hemisphere and began to create serious disease, it was low priority.
So will we be protected against future epidemics of Zika virus? Of Ebola? Of lethal influenza? To some extent. But the greater the investment we make in public health today, the safer we’ll be tomorrow. In my opinion, we should be investing much more. In addition to protecting us against suffering, each dollar invested in public health saves many dollars in medical expenses averted. It is local, state and federal governments that invest the most in public health. That means that we the people need to decide to invest more.