One of the greatest risks in the midst of a viral outbreak, aside from the disease itself, is complacency.

We can set out to track confirmed cases of infection, use sophisticated models to predict the spread of a virus, and even have some degree of advance warning. However, it happens too often that the threat is underestimated.

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Each time that happens, rather than learning from it and changing things the next time around, patients ultimately end up paying the price of potentially preventable illnesses.

Unfortunately, that is exactly the situation in which we find ourselves with the new threat of Zika. It’s long past time that our lawmakers and the American public start taking this threat seriously.

Funding to fight the spread of Zika has been a political volleyball for months, and unless Congress can finally find a way to put people ahead of politics, we will find ourselves facing a public health crisis.

Last Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and health officials in Florida confirmed 4 new cases of the Zika infection. That tis not particularly alarming since more than 380 documented cases of Zika infection have been reported in Florida to date.

What makes this situation so critically different, however, is that these cases are the first confirmed in the continental United States to be locally-acquired via mosquito bites.  They were not imported via travel to foreign countries or acquired through sexual transmission.

The infected individual in Florida appear to have been bitten by local yellow fever mosquitoes. And just like that, the threat in this country became more real and the stakes went much higher.

Most adults who contract Zika either have no symptoms or relatively mild symptoms. The twenty percent who are symptomatic have signs of fever, rash, muscle pains, and eye inflammation.

For pregnant women who contract the infection,  the results can be devastating, since they can pass the virus on to their fetus before delivery with severe impact on fetal and newborn development.

Zika infection during pregnancy has been linked to severe brain defects and microcephaly in newborns, a condition in which babies are born with abnormal brains and abnormally small heads.

In Brazil, where the Olympics will soon be held  and where Zika has been epidemic, over 4,000 cases of microcephaly have been reported in the last year, representing a 1,000 percent increase over a usual year.

Concerns have been raised surrounding American athletes contracting Zika during the Olympics in Brazil and bringing it back to the US.

However, there are a few things working in our favor. First, it’s technically winter in Brazil right now, so mosquitoes aren’t nearly as active. Secondly, experts don’t anticipate a large travel influx to and from the Olympics and the US.

In fact, many some experts have suggested that despite the Olympic games, there won’t be any increase in passengers traveling between Brazil and the US than there are in a normal year.

The news from Florida, though, opens a different chapter in a different story. Offering everything from world-class theme parks to popular beaches to vibrant city nightlife.

Florida is among the top-ranked states for domestic travelers. Last year Florida became the first state to welcome more than 100 million visitors in one year, and was on track this year to increase those numbers. Until now.

To avert panic here is crucial, however, and, it’s important to remember that, so far, cases of locally-acquired mosquito-borne Zika infection in Florida appear to be limited to one circumscribed area just north of downtown Miami.

In an effort to prevent any further spread, all blood donations have been halted in Miami-Dade and neighboring Broward counties until established blood screening methods for Zika can be fully implemented. That proved to be an effective strategy to limit the risk of Zika transmission from blood transfusions in Puerto Rico, and should similarly slow the risk of spread in Florida.

The fact that mosquitoes are now carriers here in the US, however, should be a wake up call.
Had the CDC and state and local health agencies been allocated the necessary resources they requested months ago, Zika might not have been seen as the threat it’s being viewed as. We live in a mobile society, after all, where the next outbreak could be just a plane ride away.

As it stands, those heroes on the ground working to contain the virus in Florida are doing the best they can with the resources they have available. I genuinely hope they succeed, and hope even more strongly that they are finally given the resources they need— we clearly need them.

Political posturing and lack of public awareness for Zika should be viewed as ultimately and absolutely unacceptable by us all.


Dr. Neil Silverman is a Clinical Professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology/Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He is also the perinatal point person for the California Department of Public Health to handle questions related to the Zika virus.


The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.