According to the Centers for Disease Control, only 51 Zika infections have been recorded in the continental United States, including one case of sexual transmission, the Huffington Post reported on Monday. Federal health officials said that because of the nature of the disease and its transmission, it’s possible that Zika won’t affect the United States as much as once feared. But the virus will still have a profound impact on millions of women and children in the 33 countries actively battling the disease. Americans may be relatively safe from a widespread Zika outbreak, but here’s why they should still care.
The federal government has taken several crucial steps in the face of Zika’s rapid spread through South America and the Caribbean. Earlier this year, the CDC issued travel guidelines urging American women who are pregnant or planning pregnancy to avoid countries where the Zika virus is active. On Monday, President Barack Obama announced plans to request $1.8 billion in emergency funding from Congress to combat the Zika virus in the United States and abroad, according to the Huffington Post. The World Health Organization declared Zika a global health emergency, marking only the fourth time in history an infectious disease outbreak has carried the designation.
Americans shouldn’t panic about Zika, Obama said on Monday. In an interview with CBS News, Obama said Zika posed a minimum risk compared to other infectious diseases like Ebola:
The good news is, this is not like Ebola — people don’t die of Zika. A lot of people get it and don’t even know that they have it. What we now know, though, is there appears to be some significant risk for pregnant women or women thinking about getting pregnant. We don’t know exactly what the relations are, but there’s enough correlation that we have to take this very seriously. [...] There shouldn’t be panic on this -- this is not something where people are gonna die from it — it is something we’re gonna take seriously.
But that might be a position only citizens of the world’s wealthiest countries can afford to take. The virus is strongly suspected to be linked to microcephaly, a birth defect that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads and brains. Microcephaly is linked with a host of developmental disorders and delays. And while it isn’t a death sentence in most cases, the diagnosis often means seizures and problems with speech, vision, hearing, and movement, according to Al Jazeera America. Managing microcephaly has posed a significant challenge to hundreds of Brazilian mothers already dependent on public health services to care for children born with the disorder.
In Brazil, an insufficient system of doctors, medical infrastructure, and equipment mean that families without private insurance get little support to care for children born with disabilities. And microcephaly often means a lifelong need for extensive physical therapy, speech therapy, and occupational therapy — not to mention a supportive community able to help the family. Speaking to Al Jazeera America, journalist and disabled rights advocate Claudia Wierneck said that prejudice and stigma mean those critical resources are often hardest to come by:
When a disabled child is born in Brazil, the family is often alone. And they remain alone because of the lack of support from politicians and segregation from society.
So while Zika may not carry the death toll of other infectious diseases, the virus and its profound impact shouldn’t be underestimated. While families in wealthier countries may have the benefit of a medical system and resources to help manage the prognosis for newborns when a pregnant woman is infected with Zika, not every country — and not every family — is so prepared. Without a significant global attention, Zika could easily become a “disease of the poor” and a generation of its victims could be pushed to the margins of the poorest regions of the world.