So can New Yorkers feel safe by staying home and avoiding sex with a partner who’s been to a Zika-troubled region? For the moment, yes — but that could change with a single mosquito bite. The danger is that a tiger mosquito — local to the New York area — bites one infected person and then spreads the virus by biting other people.
That hasn’t happened yet, as far as we know. But more people coming to New York infected with Zika increase the risk local tiger mosquitoes will bite them and begin spreading the infection.
Epidemiologists say that risk is “considerable,” meaning 50-50. So why aren’t city health officials trying to slow the pace of Zika-infected arrivals?
Political correctness. “It won’t serve New Yorkers well if we create the impression that Zika is a Dominican problem or a Puerto Rico problem or a Guyana problem,” says Health Commissioner Mary Bassett.
Oh really? The goal should be to keep it from becoming a New York City problem.
Just to be clear, race and ethnicity have nothing to do with it. It’s geography. American citizens who travel to Zika hot spots as tourists put us in as much danger on their return as immigrants bringing it in. About 5 percent of those entering the United States who get tested for Zika test positive.
As of last week, Miami-Dade County, Fla., is another danger area. At least 34 people there have contracted the virus from local mosquitoes. “The more we’ve learned about the Zika virus, the nastier it is,” says infectious-disease expert Willliam Schaffner from Vanderbilt University.
Last week, scientists showed Zika causes brain damage in adult mice, indicating it might do the same in humans. It destroys the hippocampus, which affects memory, emotion and learning. “Zika can clearly enter the brain of adults and wreak havoc,” professor Susan Shresta of the La Jolla Institute of Allergy and Immunology explains.
Lab studies on mice are one thing. In real life, numerous adults infected with Zika have suffered damage to their nervous systems or brains, and some have died.
The risk of the virus spreading locally via mosquitoes is serious enough that New York City is spending millions of dollars spraying insecticides, reducing the puddles of water that serve as breeding grounds and randomly testing mosquitoes for traces of the virus.
But these same officials won’t take the simple step of alerting people that bringing this virus to New York is a selfish, antisocial thing to do. Deputy Health Commissioner Jay Varma says he doubts the “transmission risk is high enough in New York City” to discourage travel to and from Zika-affected regions. High enough to spend millions of dollars but not to talk frankly about travel?
Common sense dictates otherwise. If you want to visit family in the Dominican Republic, or go clubbing in Miami Beach, hold off until after mosquito season. It’s only a few weeks. Otherwise, you’re putting yourself and everyone else at risk. You could pick up Zika, and on your return, a mosquito here could bite you, then go on to bite your neighbor, starting the virus spreading. Not very neighborly.
And New York City health officials shouldn’t be afraid to say so.
Betsy McCaughey is a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research and Chairman of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths.