Even with all our technology and the inventions that make modern life so much easier than it once was, it takes just one big natural disaster to wipe all that away and remind us that, here on Earth, we’re still at the mercy of nature.—Neil deGrasse Tyson
I have been watching over the past few days as the specter of snow looms over tomorrow’s forecast. As much as a heavy snowfall has the potential to really mess up my schedule for this week, that may be exactly what we need. With our winter, to date, having been so very mild and comfortable, there hasn’t been enough snow and freezing temperatures to do what winter does best: kill bug larvae. Unfortunately, we’re likely to get little more than a dusting tomorrow, or so it seems. Our portion of the Midwest has missed the blizzards and the sub-zero temperatures that usually help keep the insect population in check. I’m beginning to worry. We could use a minor disaster to prevent a major one.
The problem isn’t all bugs, of course. The danger the lurks in the coming of Spring is a common nuisance: mosquitoes. We fight them every year and the wetter the spring the more challenging that battle becomes. For most people in the United States, they’re little more than a nuisance, but this year they hold the potential to bring society to its knees as they may be carrying a deadly disease known as Zika.
This past Monday, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Zika a public health emergency. Such a move is fairly rare as it raises warnings that affect economies and social practices. Even in this statement, the WHO was been accused of playing politics in not putting a restriction on travel to affected areas by pregnant women. Why? Because ground zero for the disease is currently Brazil, the country hosting this summer’s Olympic games. Any level of travel restriction (which the US implemented last month ) could devastate Brazil’s already shaky economy. Yet, the risk to pregnant women is severe, and not exactly welcoming for anyone else.
While pregnant women and their unborn fetuses have been the primary focus of those attempting to corral the disease, Zika can affect anyone. Most healthy people would experience the all-too-common symptoms for about a week and not know what was the cause. Fever, rash, joint pain, red eyes, and perhaps a headache are the most common symptoms and most people who contract the disease never need to see a doctor or go to the hospital. They can wait out the symptoms, which last about a week, and be fine. So, what’s the big deal? Why are we worried?
Because Zika has the ability to do so much more. While mosquitoes remain the primary means of transmitting the disease, having sex with anyone currently infected with Zika can also spread the disease to an uninfected partner. Not everyone whose bloodstream is infected will present symptoms and while, for most people, the disease only stays in the bloodstream about a week, it can hang around longer without the host being aware of its presence. The one case of Zika that has occurred in the US was spread through sexual contact with an infected person. As we’ve seen with other sexually transmitted diseases, once the spread begins it can be difficult to stop.
Where Zika becomes a real disaster is in the effect it has on unborn children. Zika appears to affect the development of the head and brain, resulting in something called Microcephaly. There is no treatment that diminishes the effects. There is no cure. Children born with the disease are disabled for life and will never be able to care for themselves. Seizures, loss of hearing and/or sight, balance difficulty, and difficulty swallowing are among the dangers faced by children with microcephaly.
As if affecting children wasn’t bad enough, the great social disaster could be in how to respond, especially for pregnant women. Already, women in affected countries, most of which are in heavily Catholic South America, are beginning to re-think their stance on abortion, which not only puts them at odds with the church, but in most South American countries, such as Brazil, abortion is illegal except under the most extreme circumstances. The Church also forbids the use of any form of birth control, including condoms, which could contribute to the further spread of the disease.
Already, the United Nations has issued a statement urging “the repeal of laws and policies that restrict access to sexual and reproductive health services.” Here is where the disaster threatens to do the most damage. While few debate the need to curb the disease with medicine and science, when the most readily available means of prevention collides with religious beliefs, people are ready to go to war to protect what they consider their religious duty. Even in the United States, women’s reproductive rights are a hotbed of controversy, with Congress repeatedly attempting to defund women’s care providers, specifically Planned Parenthood, because of their willingness to provide various methods of birth control. Given that this is a presidential election year with passions already running high at both political extremes, this could be the disaster the ultimately leads to domestic violence on a level we’ve not seen since the Civil War.
Even in the United States, women’s reproductive rights are a hotbed of controversy, with Congress repeatedly attempting to defund women’s care providers, specifically Planned Parenthood, because of their willingness to provide various methods of birth control. Given that this is a presidential election year with passions already running high at both political extremes, this could be the disaster the ultimately leads to domestic violence on a level we’ve not seen since the Civil War.
Public health officials in the US are attempting, for the moment, to downplay the risks, citing effective mosquito extermination programs in the past. However, given that Zika can be spread through sexual contact, and we’ve not yet begun mosquito season, it is too early to be so dismissive. At the very least, it would seem prudent to impose even more stringent travel restrictions to places where Zika is a known problem. The CDC is already urging the use of condoms and other means of birth control as a way of avoiding pregnancy if one plans on traveling to an infected area. Consumer Reports, whose content is normally behind a paywall, has made public a list of mosquito repellants that best protect against Zika.
Disaster could still be averted, but to ignore the threat is foolish. We’re still three to four months away from seeing mosquitoes begin to spread across the United States. For many areas, especially rural communities, measures to fight mosquitoes are likely to require federal funding, something Congress has loathed. If the funding is not there, the risk for disaster increases. If people attending the Olympics are not careful in every possible sense of the word, the risk for disaster increases.
In comparison, maybe getting snowed in for a couple of days isn’t so bad.