Politicians Should Not Spread Fear About Diseases They Do Not Understand

Mature Businessman at lectern outdoors, holding microphone and documents
Mature Businessman at lectern outdoors, holding microphone and documents

Heightened media attention in this election season gives presidential candidates power to influence the public on health concerns like Ebola and Zika. But the inflammatory rhetoric candidates deploy often cause unwarranted fear. We should be wary of politicians' uninformed statements about public health. If we've learned anything from the Ebola crisis, it's that everyone--elected officials especially-- should follow health experts' decisions rather than catastrophize about them.

A year ago, the Ebola outbreak in Guinea and Liberia monopolized the news. The public feared that a similar outbreak would occur in the U.S. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) advised that confining people before they showed symptoms of Ebola was unnecessary, since they were not contagious. Regardless, state authorities in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Illinois ignored the CDC's advice, imposing quarantines on asymptomatic health workers. According to a study by Yale public health students, at least 273 were confined to their homes for 21 days, the maximum incubation period for the virus. An additional 2,815 U.S. service personnel returning from assisting Ebola-stricken countries were confined to military bases. Over 3,000 people were quarantined, but none actually developed Ebola. Over a dozen governors, including Christie (NJ), Malloy (CT) and Cuomo (NY), triggered unwarranted fear in the public, and disrupted the lives of those quarantined.

Now that the hysteria surrounding Ebola is behind us, we should be careful about reacting to Zika as vehemently. Both Christie and Malloy are being sued by those they wrongfully quarantined. This shouldn't happen with Zika. Politicians can start by educating the public on the Zika virus. CDC Director Tom Frieden says that the virus is not a major threat, as 80 percent of people who contract the virus will have no symptoms at all. The rest will have only mild symptoms--mild fevers and rashes that last a week. The biggest concern over Zika is its looming threat to pregnant women and those planning to become pregnant. The CDC confirmed this week that Zika causes microcephaly and other severe fetal brain defects in newborns. They also confirmed that the virus could be transmitted through certain kinds of sex.

However, it is unlikely that the virus will turn into an epidemic in the United States. Peter Hotez of the Baylor College of Medicine commented, "at this point, around the time of acute illness there is a small risk of sexual transmission." Mosquitos are still the major concern for Zika transmission. But the mosquito that carries the virus can't survive in most of the U.S. Although El Niño threatens to bring in tropical climate change perfect for mosquitoes, the U.S has a robust system of vector control that would regulate the growing mosquito population.

Between January and March, the CDC screened 5,000 travelers for Zika, and just over 4 percent tested positive. Stephen Morse, director of the Infectious Disease Epidemiology Certificate Program at Columbia University, says, "the fact that the risk of contracting it is less than you might think ... it might be somewhat reassuring."

Most Zika-related discussions in the U.S. have issued from the Republican presidential candidates. After Senator Mitch McConnell claimed, "we're sort of reacting too late, like we did on Ebola," Zika became a frequent question in the Republican debates. During the New Hampshire debate in early February, the candidates were asked about Zika. Chris Christie, who had sanctioned Ebola quarantines in New Jersey, said he wouldn't hesitate to do this again with Zika. But according to the CDC, quarantines are completely ineffective.

"In rest of the United States, we may see clusters. We will not see widespread transmission," Frieden says. In other words, the magnitude of Zika in the U.S will not be as severe as in South America. We must follow the precautions given by the CDC, and act with reason, not fear. Rather than spread unnecessary fear into the public, elected officials should work alongside the CDC, not against it.