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Experts Urge United States to be Proactive, Not Reactive, in Response to Zika

MAY 13, 2016 | BRIAN P. DUNLEAVY
“The public needs to learn more about the virus and the dangers that it poses,” said Dr. Lednicky, before adding that he is getting some 10,000 calls and emails a day from “private citizens” asking about Zika and “how to protect themselves from [the virus] and how to keep the mosquitoes away from their homes.” In addition, travelers to regions in which the virus is prevalent—such as Brazil and Puerto Rico— “still do not know the risks of Zika, and it is interesting to note that more than a few people who have returned to the United States with active Zika infections are missionaries or medical providers [who] we expect would know how to protect themselves from Zika,” Dr. Lednicky noted.
 
Public health experts also urge funding for preventive measures such as active and passive surveillance protocols for the virus and any outbreaks. Dr. Lednicky told Contagion that his colleagues in the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute and the Department of Environmental and Global Health found that Zika virus was present in Haiti in 2014, but that “there was little to no interest in our discovery.” He believes that had funds been allocated toward response to the Haiti outbreak, public health experts may have been able to learn more about the virus earlier, including its pathology and any potential mechanisms to foster immune response.
 
Yet, at least at a national level here in the United States, funds remain in Congressional limbo. Florida Senator, Marco Rubio, remains one of the few leaders urging funding to fight Zika. Senator Rubio has been particularly vocal about the dire situation in Puerto Rico, which is already suffering financially, and has seen a dramatic reduction in tourism due at least in part to the prevalence of Zika there.
 
“Many think Zika will not be a problem in Florida,” Dr. Lednicky said. “According to this dismissive camp, many factors, including the American lifestyle and its extensive reliance on air-conditioning, are not conducive to establishment of a long-term Zika transmission cycle. However, there is much we don't understand, yet about how Zika establishes itself in a new niche. It was not too long ago that West Nile virus was dismissed as a ‘virus of animals, not humans,’ yet it wreaked havoc in states like Illinois, where it was assumed the mosquitoes that transmitted the virus couldn't survive the winter months. Florida not only has a suitable environmental landscape and weather [for Zika vector mosquitoes], it has a large population of susceptible inhabitants and animal species [that may] serve as a reservoir for Zika virus. Not too long ago, many were surprised when alligators were found infected with West Nile virus. Who would have thought that? With Zika, will we be surprised as well?”
 
Brian P. Dunleavy is a medical writer and editor based in New York. His work has appeared in numerous healthcare-related publications. He is the former editor of Infectious Disease Special Edition.
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