Health officials are bowing to political correctness instead of taking obvious steps to protect residents in most of the United States from the Zika virus. For example, New York has more Zika cases — some 579 — than any other state. Officials warn pregnant women and their sexual partners not to travel to Zika-infested regions, because the virus causes horrific birth defects. But babies are not the only ones in danger. New research suggests adults may also suffer permanent brain damage after being bitten by a mosquito carrying Zika.
That's reason enough to avoid travel to and from the Dominican Republic, the source of more than half the cases, or Puerto Rico, also Zika-infested.
So can people living in cities such as New York and St. Louis feel safe by staying home and avoiding sex with a partner who's been to a Zika-troubled region? For the moment, yes — but that could change with one mosquito bite. The danger is that a tiger mosquito — local to these temperate areas of the country — bites an infected person and then spreads Zika by biting other people.
That hasn't happened yet, as far as we know. But the more people infected with Zika coming to New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and other areas with tiger mosquitoes, the higher the risk these mosquitoes will bite them and begin spreading the infection.
Epidemiologists say that risk is "considerable," meaning 50-50. So why aren't health officials trying to slow the pace of Zika-infected arrivals? Political correctness. "It won't serve New Yorkers well if we create the impression that Zika is a Dominican problem or a Puerto Rico problem or a Guyana problem," says Dr. Mary Bassett, New York City Health Commissioner.
Oh, really? The goal should be to keep it from becoming a New York City problem.
Just to be clear, race and ethnicity have nothing to do with it. It's geography. American citizens who travel to Zika hot spots as tourists put us in as much danger on their return as immigrants bringing it in. About 5 percent of those entering the U.S.who get tested for Zika test positive.
As of last week, Miami-Dade County, Florida, is another danger area. At least 34 people there have contracted the virus from local mosquitoes.
"The more we 've learned about the Zika virus, the nastier it is," says infectious disease expert William Schaffner from Vanderbilt University.
Last week, scientists showed Zika causes brain damage in adult mice, indicating it might do the same in humans. It destroys the hippocampus, which affects memory, emotion and learning. "Zika can clearly enter the brain of adults and wreak havoc," professor Sujan Shresta of the La Jolla Institute of Allergy and Immunology explains.
Lab studies on mice are one thing. In real life, numerous adults infected with Zika have suffered damage to their nervous systems or brains, and some have died.
The risk of the virus spreading locally via mosquitoes is serious enough that New York City is spending millions of dollars spraying insecticides, reducing the puddles of water that are breeding grounds, and randomly testing mosquitoes for traces of the virus. Other cities in the temperate regions of the nation are spending big on similar precautions.
But health officials won't take the simple step of alerting people that bringing this virus northward from Zika-affected areas is a selfish, antisocial thing to do. Dr. Jay Varma, deputy health commissioner, says he doubts the "transmission risk is high enough in New York City" to discourage travel to and from Zika-affected regions. High enough to spend millions of dollars but not to talk frankly about travel?
Common sense dictates otherwise. If you want to visit family in the Dominican Republic, or go clubbing in Miami Beach, hold off until after mosquito season. It's a matter of weeks. Otherwise, you're putting yourself and everyone else at risk.
And health officials shouldn't be afraid to say so.
Betsy McCaughey is chairman of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths and a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research and author of "Government by Choice: Inventing the United States Constitution." To find out more about Betsy McCaughey and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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