You may not be a pregnant woman. You may not be the partner of a pregnant woman. But if you don’t care about Zika, you’re part of the problem.
That’s the message that Joseph Conlon, a technical adviser for the American Mosquito Control Association (AMCA), wants the public to hear as the virus continues to spread via local transmission in Florida.
“It’s a social responsibility issue,” he told The Daily Beast. “Anyone who gets bitten by a mosquito that is harboring the virus is potentially the means for that mosquito to transmit it to someone else.”
Local transmission of Zika in the continental United States began in Miami-Dade County, but it has since spread to both Pinellas and Palm Beach counties, bringing the statewide total to 43 locally acquired cases. So far, Florida remains the only state with such cases but that could change—especially if the public doesn’t take the threat seriously.
“We expected to have some isolated outbreaks and that’s exactly what [Zika’s] doing,” said Conlon. “What’s disturbing me to some extent, though, is the complacency of the population with regards to the spread.”
That complacency can be found writ large in the pages of the Miami Herald, which has been dutifully documenting Zika-related apathy. For example, when the virus hopped from the Wynwood arts neighborhood over Biscayne Bay to South Beach, the Herald headline was: “South Beach tourists mostly blasé about Zika in Miami Beach.” The next day: “Zika on South Beach? Locals and tourists shrug it off.”
“It doesn’t scare me,” one coupled-up tourist told the paper. “The chances are slim. The danger is mostly to pregnant women, and we are not pregnant and not planning to be.”
Another tourist said, “We have two kids already. My wife doesn’t want to get pregnant again, so we’re not worried.”
But that individualistic attitude toward Zika is precisely what enables it to spread, says Conlon. It is true that the chances of any given individual acquiring the virus are low. And the CDC’s travel advisory for Florida does indeed focus on men and women of reproductive age. But you don’t have to be trying to make a baby for yourself to be capable of spreading Zika to a pregnant woman near you.
“People are focusing on the microcephaly as they should but, if they’re not of childbearing age, they’re tending to just disregard Zika as a threat,” Conlon explained.
The result is a potential chain reaction of bad decision-making and even worse consequences: When tourists and locals don’t protect themselves, they can get bitten by a Zika-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquito, acquire the virus but remain asymptomatic, and get bitten by another Zika-free mosquito that then becomes infected and ultimately spreads the virus to “people who actually are of childrearing age,” as Conlon stressed.
Between the locally-acquired and travel-related cases, 70 pregnant women in Florida have tested positive for the virus, as NBC News reported. Nationwide, 584 women have shown lab evidence of a possible Zika infection.
But even if you’re not motivated by an altruistic concern for pregnant women, there are still plenty of reasons to be cautious about acquiring Zika.
A recent animal study in Cell Stem Cell found that Zika could potentially damage not just fetal brains but adult brain cells, too. And as the CDC notes, several countries with Zika outbreaks “have [also] reported increases in people who have Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS),” an autoimmune disorder. The CDC believes that GBS is “strongly associated with Zika” even though the overall risk of acquiring GBS is low.
In short: We’ve only just begun to understand the range of the Zika’s possible effects.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if there are a number of dramatic sequelae from contracting this disease that we really don’t know yet,” said Conlon. “This is a new epidemiological phenomenon worldwide.”
Up to this point, active transmission still seems to be contained to Miami Beach and the Wynwood neighborhood. But despite aggressive spraying in those areas, the general public is still responsible for curbing the spread of Zika.
As Dr. Duane Gubler, a leading expert on tropical infectious diseases, recently told the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, “The [Aedes aegypti] mosquito lives in closets, inside garbage, indoors. Those conditions are less than ideal for mass spraying campaigns.”
In outdoor areas like backyards, Aedes aegypti mosquitoes can breed in artificial containers as large as dumpsters or as small as bottle caps—even small metallic bottle caps like the one Conlon once found holding five Aedes aegypti larvae in a backyard in Paramaribo, the capital city of Suriname. Spraying can kill the mosquitoes but only draining containers will stop them from breeding altogether.
“You can’t expect mosquito control or the public authorities to stop this disease in its tracks if the populace isn’t willing to become part of the solution rather than part of the problem,” said Conlon.
Other mosquito experts have echoed his emphasis on social responsibility in the face of Zika. Most memorably, Dr. Grayson Brown, a University of Kentucky entomologist, told the Washington Times: “You have to make it socially unacceptable to have mosquitoes, the way you make it socially unacceptable to drive drunk.”
For anyone who wants to be “part of the solution,” as Conlon puts it, there is a tried-and-true formula to prevent mosquito-borne illnesses: drain, dress, and defend. That means getting rid of standing water, wearing loose-fitting clothing that covers your entire body, and using an EPA-registered insect repellent.
“If you’ve done those three things,” said Conlon, “then you’ve done about as much as you possibly can to keep from getting the virus.”
And, just as importantly, to keep others from getting it.