In 1999, when West Nile virus cases began surfacing in the United States, horror overcame Americans, causing them to shut their doors for fear of becoming infected with the mysterious mosquito-borne illness. The virus, which has claimed nearly 2,000 lives as of 2015, remains a problem today, and some studies have linked these infections with lasting nervous system damage.
Scientists still don’t know the full extent of West Nile’s effects, but today the U.S. has another beast on its hands: the Zika virus. However, unlike West Nile, I’m not seeing the same level of alarm about its known and unknown harms, and that concerns me.
A recent report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the Zika outbreak doubled the number of reported birth defects in Brazil, and since then, the virus has reached Florida. In Miami-Dade County alone, nearly 50 infections have resulted from local transmission, and the CDC has issued a warning that advises pregnant women against traveling there.
Although Zika and West Nile are similar in that they appear to affect the nervous system and are primarily transmitted by mosquitoes, studies suggest Zika also can be sexually transmitted— something scientists have never before seen among these infections, called flaviviruses. Also, Zika can cause an array of birth defects, certainly microcephaly, a condition wherein a child’s head is born partially formed, and possibly other issues like the nerve disorder Guillian-Barre syndrome in adults over age 60, and arthrogryposis, a rare joint abnormality, in newborns.
Despite the clear fact that Zika can lead to these serious complications, the American public is not taking Zika seriously, and that is because they are not getting very clear signals from Congress. And, like everything else, they’re hoping that this is going to go away.
The number of national Zika cases is not so numerous that the American public feels that this is real, which is unfortunate because Zika is not going anywhere. There might be eradication of mosquitoes, there might be significant slowdown of human transmission, but one thing remains true: Zika in a pregnant patient could permanently damage an unborn child, and there are at least 84 pregnant women in Florida alone who are infected with the virus.
We do not know the potential variable nature of this virus. However, with everything that is going on with the Congressional debate, the lack of funding, and some of the “drip drip” of information that the American public is getting, the public is phasing it out of their minds.
This perspective is problematic because, until scientists develop a vaccine or identify a cure to eradicate the virus, any men and women planning a family need to have precautions at the forefront of their minds. That means paying attention to where you visit and being vigilant about personal mosquito control. If you’ve been in a place that may put you at risk for contracting Zika, get tested and monitored, and as new information is released, stay up to date on bulletins posted by the CDC and the departments of health in your respective states. Ultimately, realize that these types of infections are real and problematic, and, in many causes with pregnant women, devastating. Realize that we need to continue to be alert, regardless of what messaging we’re getting from the government.
Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's senior managing health editor. He also serves as chairman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology and reproductive science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. For more information on Dr. Manny's work, visit AskDrManny.com.