On August 17 we were two of about 100 people who attended the Hot Topics Forum on Zika that was sponsored by our excellent local newspaper the Herald-Tribune.
Rather than summarize the points made (check out reporter Maggie Clark’s August 18 article at http://www.heraldtribune.com), we offer here our reactions to and thoughts about what we heard—and didn’t hear.
Sasha: This is such a difficult issue to present, especially for a city that counts on tourism. On the one hand, panelists encouraged public awareness and taking steps to avoid Zika transmission whether by mosquito or sexual transmission. There was also support for additional research but also concern that the US Congress did not allocate the $1.9 billion asked for by the CDC. Don’t panic was the general message. On the other hand, the risk to pregnant women of giving birth to a baby with microcephaly, little knowledge about the neurological damage that might not show in the infected for years, no crystal ball for how this will play out and whether it will eventually spread, and with the probability that the lack of funding will delay the development of a vaccine, we should be very concerned indeed.
Jack: The potential impact of the virus spreading when people leave the Olympics and return home was mentioned, but one huge omission was Puerto Rico (a commonwealth of the US whose residents are US citizens). Given that, it should be of concern that over 11,000 American citizens living there have Zika, the territory is bankrupt, and the US is ignoring them. If we said that 11,000 people were infected in Florida, believe me, the Congress would act. It is being projected that Puerto Rico may have as many as 800,000 cases by the end of the year.
Sasha: I learned a lot from the panelists, mostly because they brought together points that were on the periphery for me. For example:
I knew that mosquitoes could infect humans; but I had missed that once-infected, humans could pass on the virus to other mosquitoes who would then pass it on to other humans, and so on. In addition, the type of mosquito that carries Zika likes to bite several hosts rather than feed on one. Eeek.
I knew that Zika could be sexually transmitted, but who knew that although women carried the virus for perhaps as many as 8 weeks, that men could carry it in their semen for up to six months. [Question: How on earth, then, can we be sure that the virus can be contained within Miami’s zone of infection without also “containing” sexually active men? Wow. This would be a new twist on reproductive and sexual freedom, no?]
Dr. Vilma Vega introduced the issue of whether Guillain-Barre syndrome, which harms the nervous system, could be linked to those who had Zika years earlier. So rather than experiencing short-term flu-like symptoms and being done with it, Zika could pose a much greater danger for all those infected.
Jack: The bug guy Matthew Smith (his actual title is director of Sarasota County Mosquito Management) was so entertaining…hates bromeliads but wow, does he know mosquitoes! Apparently the types of mosquitoes that are the problem are “urban, social mosquitoes” that like to bite you on your ankles. I guess my father-in-law knows what he’s doing wearing those ankle-high white socks with his shorts.
Sasha: The elephant in the room was the issue of women’s reproductive rights, namely birth control and abortion.
Telling women to delay pregnancy if living in affected areas or having traveled to Zika-infected areas (or whose partner may have been similarly exposed) implicates the necessity of birth control. This could be problematic for Miami’s Catholic Latinos because the Church still forbids the use of birth control devices.
An additional political issue was alluded to when moderator Tom Tryon asked about whether “termination” of a pregnancy would be one of the options presented to infected pregnant women. The question was ducked by one of the panelists as an “extremely personal choice” and one “premature” to consider here in Sarasota.
But hold on. When pregnant women are tested and are found positive for the virus, the abortion option may not be an option at all. First, Florida law prohibits the public funding of abortions (except for life endangerment, rape, or incest). Second, the testing for whether the fetus is infected and developing abnormally will usually take the woman into her second trimester or even into the third trimester. Second trimester abortions are more highly regulated and difficult to obtain as there are fewer providers. Third trimester abortions are outlawed except “to save the pregnant woman’s life or avert a serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman other than a psychological condition.” (FL Statutes 2016, Title XXIX, Chapter 390). So, in my opinion, if Zika spreads, the battle ground will (once again) be women’s bodies and their reproductive rights.
Jack: Class considerations were also briefly mentioned when Matthew Smith said that Miami was a good breeding ground for Zika because it is densely populated and its poorer people are less likely to have manicured lawns and screened–in lanais. But the implications of this observation were not pursued. The audience was mainly composed of older middle class people, and these are the people most likely to take the precautions that were suggested. But no one on the panel talked about how to reach the poorer people, the people who weren’t there, and who are not as likely to read the newspaper.
Jack: Q&A were mostly about the question: how does this affect ME? Two different questioners asked for advice about whether their daughters should visit. Two vendors tried to drum up support for their mosquito repellents. One person mentioned the wacko idea of introducing more bats into the area. Yeah, bats eat mosquitoes but the type of mosquito we need to get rid of flies around your ankles. I guess we need “low-flying” bats.
Karma (the Tibetan Terrier): What? No discussion about pets!?! Can we catch Zika? Are they breeding in my water bowl? What are we, mosquito bait?