Opinion

Human health hazards like Zika unrelenting

How Zika spreads (and who’s to blame)

The mosquito kills nearly 750,000 people each year. Malaria is the cause for the majority of these deaths, but a Zika outbreak has the Americas scared of this insect. This is how the insect spreads disease to its victims.
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The mosquito kills nearly 750,000 people each year. Malaria is the cause for the majority of these deaths, but a Zika outbreak has the Americas scared of this insect. This is how the insect spreads disease to its victims.

When I was growing up, many of the health issues that frightened parents and children seemed to be subsiding, already contained or on the verge of a “cure.”

What I’ve learned as a parent, and now a grandparent, is that new times beget new hazards and stir up old fears in every generation — unheard-of maladies that surface (or resurface) just when we thought science had gained the upper hand.

When you visit the homepage of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention these days, there is no question about the concern the federal government has about our latest fear: Zika.

[Related: Zika in Idaho? What you need to know.]

Another jolt of reality comes when something like this hits home — when you visit your family in Dallas, where the Zika virus is not some abstraction. It’s on the minds of everyone — especially my pregnant daughter-in-law, who could give birth any day now and who has done her best to navigate her second pregnancy through months of angst and heavy doses of Deet, the common and preferred active ingredient in mosquito repellants.

Like many other childhood health scares, Zika debuted in whispers before seizing the CDC headlines as a worldwide health crisis. Reports of Zika in the Southern Hemisphere morphed into Zika realities on American soil — “Zika in Florida” and the “Zika Interim Response Plans” — of which you can peruse all 60 pages at cdc.gov/zika.

Zika outbreaks are currently happening in many countries and territories. The mosquitoes that can become infected with and spread Zika live in many parts of the world, including parts of the United States. Learn how you can protect yourself from Z

The things that infect us, scare us and harm us are not confined within borders anymore. Because we travel so much, or are exposed to people who do, or because we rub elbows with those who migrate from more tropical regions to this country, there simply is no Zika-free zone.

True, the mosquito that spreads Zika finds Idaho inhospitable. But it’s the people who travel to where those mosquitoes thrive that need to concern us. A mosquito that bites a person can acquire the virus and pass it on to the next person it bites. The Statesman’s Sven Berg and Audrey Dutton gave us a Zika primer Wednesday: The virus can spread through sexual contact, from a pregnant woman to her fetus, or via blood transfusion. There’s a chance the fetus of a pregnant woman can contract microcephaly, which results in a baby being born with an unusually small head and a brain defects, along with vision, hearing and growth problems.

During my visit to Dallas the last week in July, I was invited along for an ultrasound checkup with my son and daughter-in-law. Since Texas is among the states home to the offending aedes genus mosquito, I asked the attending physician about Zika.

My daughter-in-law surmised that, because she was in her third trimester and Zika is supposed to affect women earlier in pregnancy, she’d passed the worrying point. The doctor quickly and tactfully debunked that: “I’m afraid we don’t know that for certain,” he said. “The accurate picture we are trying to paint of Zika keeps changing, like a moving cloud.”

So, our angst continues, especially in light of the news this week of the death of a Texas infant linked to complications from microcephaly (the mother’s exposure to Zika was travel-related). My 2-year-old Dallas grandson was bitten by a mosquito or some other insect during our stay. A few days later he fell ill with a fever, causing alarm — a scenario I am certain is getting more common in the South. (All indications are he just had a nasty summer cold.)

We have a lot to worry about these days and there’s only so much we can do. But at the top of the list should be this: Be vigilant. Our global and interstate paths cross more often than ever. Since Zika has no vaccine, my Dallas family is left to arm themselves with Deet and stay behind closed doors.

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