Dr. Manny: Are we losing the war on Zika?

It would be premature to say that we are losing the war on Zika, but we have certainly lost our fair share of battles. The cases of local transmission we now see in the Miami area are certainly an indication that we should be gravely concerned about our tactics in keeping our residents safe. It is foolish to think that with the tropical weather in Florida, and the large amounts of rainfall in the region, the mosquito issue will be a temporary problem.

More than 15 million tourists flock to the greater Miami area annually, bringing with them about $24 billion in revenue. Among those millions of tourists are visitors from other countries currently reeling from ramifications of the Zika virus, like Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Mexico. Failure to monitor the health of tourists arriving at our southern borders will only accelerate the issues in Florida and help it spread to nearby states.

One of my greatest fears is that many people are not taking the Zika virus and its various health implications seriously. In Puerto Rico, 30 individuals have been diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome; a rare, paralyzing condition that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Tom Frieden predicts will strike as many as 200 more. Officials issued travel advisories to Puerto Rico and several other regions as a means to protect tourists from being exposed to the virus’ dangers. This is not a panic-driven hysteria; the medical evidence of the potential damage this virus can cause is obvious.

While Zika may not affect an average age male or female who is otherwise considered healthy, data suggests the virus causes mild symptoms in as many as one in five patients. Even for those who are symptomatic, recovery is typically quick and individuals may not realize they even had a viral infection. But to weigh those odds against what the virus has the potential to do to an unborn child is irresponsible. For prospective parents, it is not a guarantee that you will present symptoms once you become infected, and the risk that your undetected infection poses to your unborn child involves life-altering, irreversible neurological defects.

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Each year more than 3 million babies are born in the United States alone. To write the virus off as a localized issue would be reckless. The folks at the CDC, as well as state health agencies and local offices must work together to come up with permanent remedies for the virus. That includes a safe and effective vaccine. The federal government must prioritize this concern and organize itself so Zika does not become a chronic health issue for pregnant women in this country. If we allow that to happen, we may see universal Zika testing for all expectant mothers, which could have dire implications for the medical community. In addition to rising costs, we will struggle to meet the demand for manpower and effective technology to address an issue that should have been contained from the start.

I’d also like to know what involvement the federal government has in providing Zika-related relief in neighboring nations and territories. We don’t hear enough about the progress being made in these regions, and the statistics indicate the number of cases is continuing to increase rather than decrease. In Miami, though the number of cases is small compared to other outbreaks, it is still real enough to be quantified by officials and requires travel advisories.

While the afflicted areas are likely to take a hit in the tourism industry, I believe strongly it’s a hit worth taking. The advice from obstetricians to prospective parents and pregnant women will be to avoid these areas, and think twice about spending an elongated period of time there. Statistically, the odds may be in your favor when visiting areas like Miami, where cases are being sporadically reported, but there truly is no guarantee.

Let us hope, whether it be for the sake of our nation’s health or economic needs, that everybody continues to rally behind finding a solution in the Zika crisis and controlling the mosquito population. To win the war on Zika, we will need officials to continue being transparent with the American public as more information about reported cases becomes available, and we will need other countries fighting the virus to put economic concerns aside and be forthcoming with their reported health issues.