Don’t let Zika induce panic

An Aedes aegypti mosquito is photographed through a microscope at the Fiocruz institute in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

It’s a little-understood virus with an exotic-sounding name carried by a particularly aggressive species of mosquito. It’s also possibly capable of causing both a debilitating auto-immune condition and a crippling birth defect.

In other words, Zika is exactly the kind of epidemic that tends to cause people to panic — and generates plenty of sensational headlines to boot.

And there clearly is plenty of cause for concern. Having previously only been recorded in small, isolated outbreaks in Africa and Asia, Zika is “spreading explosively” in Latin America, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). That international body of health experts expects that as many as 4 million people in the region could be infected by the virus by the end of the year.

And the breed of mosquito primarily responsible for transmitting Zika, the Aedes aegypti, has a natural range that extends across the American South, including southern South Carolina.

So Zika is a serious global public health threat — and potentially one here in the Lowcountry. Governments and health organizations must make prevention and treatment efforts a priority.

But we shouldn’t panic yet.

For one thing, Zika isn’t much of a problem for most people who get it. Otherwise healthy people tend not to show any symptoms at all, and those who do suffer mainly from mild rashes, fever, joint pain and pink eye.

In rare cases, though, Zika has been linked to an auto-immune condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can cause temporary paralysis and, in extreme circumstances, death. But scientists can’t fully confirm that Zika is responsible, nor is it known how many people with Zika develop Guillain-Barre because most people with the virus don’t show symptoms and therefore don’t seek medical treatment.

Similarly, Zika has been linked tentatively to a spike in cases of microcephaly in Brazil. The otherwise rare condition causes babies to be born with smaller than normal heads, sometimes resulting in severe mental disabilities.

Guillain-Barre and microcephaly are scary conditions. Yet again, the vast majority of people infected with Zika won’t ever know they were sick.

And while it’s probable that Zika will eventually spread in the U.S., vastly better living conditions and high quality health care systems make it unlikely that such an outbreak would be as extensive as the one in Latin America.

Still, the international effort to fight Zika must be aggressive and coordinated.

Latin American governments have advised women to avoid becoming pregnant until the current outbreak is under control. That’s an unrealistic solution in a region where restrictive laws and pervasive poverty make birth control difficult.

Much of Latin America is also currently suffering from severe drought linked to an unusually strong El Niño system. That means that lots of poorer residents are storing water in open containers near their homes, giving mosquitoes a perfect breeding ground.

In the developing countries where Zika is currently running rampant, addressing poverty, taking proactive steps to mitigate the impacts of climate change and providing better access to basic health care are complex challenges. However, they are necessary steps in countering Zika and similar diseases in the future.

Shorter-term education campaigns, localized pesticide treatments and monitoring of pregnant women in Zika epidemic regions can help rein in the worst effects of the virus.

And here in South Carolina, keeping a close watch for any cases of locally transmitted Zika can help sound an early alarm and prevent widespread infection.

Zika is frightening, and for good reason.

But doctors, governments, researchers and health organizations working together are well placed to get the current epidemic under control and prevent it from spreading unchecked.

In the meantime, panicking is the worst thing we can do.